Afghanistan has released 65 prisoners in a step towards shuttering a former military prison Afghan leaders believe is stoking conflict with the Taliban -- despite harsh criticism from American leaders, who believe the prisoners to be dangerous. The move highlights increasing tension between Kabul and Washington and threatens to make an already rocky relationship worse.
Earlier this week, Afghan authorities ordered the release of the convicts, held in the former American military prison at Bagram, in a maligned but anticipated decision. Afghan President Hamid Karzai swore to shutter the prison, which he has called a "Taliban-making factory," last month. Twenty-three prisoners now remain at the jail. The U.S. military has been unusually strident in criticizing the move, and has issued a strongly-worded objection to the decision:
The release of 65 detainees is a legitimate force protection concern for the lives of both coalition troops and Afghan National Security Forces... The primary weapon of choice for these individuals is the improvised explosive device, widely recognized as the primary cause of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
A spokesman for U.S. forces Afghanistan added:
Detainees from this group of 65 are directly linked to attacks killing or wounding 32 U.S. or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians... It remains the position of USFOR-A that violent criminals who harm Afghans and threaten the peace and security of Afghanistan should face justice in the Afghan courts, where a fair and transparent trial would determine their guilt or innocence.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said the decision was "deeply regrettable," adding that the evidence against the prisoners was "never taken seriously." Pentagon spokesman Army Colonel Steve Warren commented that "these are bad men" who have "a lot of blood on their hands. A lot of blood."
Those released include several men suspected of being explosives experts with a history of detonating improvised explosive devices. Some are suspected of connections with the Taliban, and some have been tied to the Haqqani insurgent group, which has planned and carried out attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
When Karzai ordered the prisoners' release back in January, he argued that there is not enough proof to keep any of Bagram's prisoners incarcerated. American officials offered more evidence to the contrary, demanding a review — which they say was not taken seriously by the Afghanistan government. U.S. officials, however, may be not be the only ones taking issue with the move. As the New York Times reported last month, while Karzai pushed for prisoner release other Afghan officials remained skeptical:
The [Afghanistan] security directorate had recommended that many of the 88 be held for trial, but was overruled by Mr. Karzai, said one senior Afghan security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the president.
Today's release adds another point of tension to already chilly ties between the outgoing Afghan president and U.S. leaders. Relations have become increasingly tense over the past few months, with Karzai claiming the U.S. is behind Taliban-style attacks on Afghan civilians and continuously refusing to sign a security pact with the U.S.
Though Karzai may be corroding ties with the U.S., he seems to be trying to make better friends with the Taliban. The prisoner release is seen as a move by Karzai to appease Taliban leadership, hoping to negotiate a peace deal with them directly — an effort which has not been going all that well.