By JAWAD SUKHANYAR and ROD NORDLANDFEB
On Thursday at 9:10 a.m., the gates of the Bagram Prison swung open, and 65 men with long beards and new clothes walked out to freedom. The moment showed clearly just how thoroughly President Hamid Karzai had broken with the American military, here now 12 years.
American officials had lobbied intensely with the Afghan government, first in private and then in increasingly acrimonious terms in public, to prevent the release of men they believed were not only dangerous insurgents with American and Afghan blood on their hands, but also men who would be convicted of that in an Afghan court of law.
Instead, American soldiers on duty at Bagram could do nothing more than watch on closed-circuit television monitors as Afghan military police used Ford pickup trucks to ferry the prisoners to the nearest bazaar to catch taxis, saving them a mile-and-a-half walk. Prison authorities had given each man, in addition to clothes, warm coats and 5,000 afghanis, or about $90 — nearly half the base monthly salary of an Afghan police officer.
Mr. Karzai, on a visit to Turkey with his defense minister, Bismullah Khan, was unmoved by American cries of foul. “If Afghan judiciary authorities decide to release prisoners, it’s of no concern to the U.S.,” he said, according to a Twitter message from his spokesman, Aimal Faizi.
Many American military leaders could not help noticing a troubling parallel with Iraq, where hundreds of Sunni inmates have escaped from Iraqi prisons, often in mass jail breaks, giving new impetus to the insurgency there.
As one NATO officer in Kabul noted wryly: “Here, they don’t even have to escape. They just walk out, thanks to our own allies.”
Mr. Karzai continues to refuse to sign a long-term security agreement, which would keep American troops here past this year; the Americans want the agreement signed by December, well before the April 5 presidential election in Afghanistan. Last April the American military signed an agreement that only Afghan forces could raid homes at night, even though the military long regarded the raids as essential to its strategy.
Last March, in response to demands from Mr. Karzai, the American military also pulled Special Operations units out of parts of Wardak Province, and since then has all but stopped bombing raids to avoid risking more civilian casualties. And although Mr. Karzai has complained about coalition-caused civilian deaths, he has been relatively silent about far more numerous civilian casualties inflicted by insurgents; last month, he said nothing in public when his aides apparently concocted photographic evidence of civilians killed in an airstrike.
Against this backdrop, said a coalition official speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities, “This does feel like that moment when everything changes.” The official added, “We’ve survived many disputes with the Afghans. We take a few body blows, but we muddle through and the mission keeps going.”
Of all the disputes with Afghan leaders, none has been as infuriating as the prisoner releases, especially to military commanders steeped in a tradition of force protection above all else.
“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,” the American military said Thursday in a statement.
If the past is any guide, the statement noted, some of these prisoners will head right back to war, like many of the 560 other suspected insurgents who the Afghans have released from Bagram in the past year.
In an email, the American military said it believed that some of these newly freed insurgents had “already returned to the fight.”
That and previous statements released this week and last month by the American military were unusually outspoken, demanding that the final group of prisoners handed over to Afghan custody whose cases were under review be sent to stand trial.
One of those who walked out Thursday morning was Abdul Samad, who said he had been picked up in the insurgent-dominated district of Andar in Ghazni Province 15 months ago, and was on his way to Nerkh district, another insurgent stronghold in Wardak Province, to meet his brother. Riding in a taxi with four other released prisoners, Mr. Samad said in a cellphone interview that he was a farmer, not an insurgent, and had never been given a reason for his arrest.
“They did not find any evidence against me to prove my involvement in any wrongdoing,” he said. The other released prisoners, three from Kandahar and one from Ghazni, got out of the taxi in Kabul, while Mr. Samad continued on to Wardak.
In its statement, the American military expressed “strong concern about the potential threats these detainees pose to coalition forces and Afghan security forces and civilians.”
Mr. Karzai, at a news conference in Ankara on Thursday, responded that the American military should “stop harassing” the Afghan judiciary, according to Mr. Faizi.
The 65 men were ordered released by an Afghan review board, which determined that there was not enough evidence to try them, according to Abdul Shakor Dadras, who heads the board. Mr. Dadras said he expected that most of the remaining 23 detainees would be released as well.
In Washington, the response of Obama administration officials was more muted than that of the military in Afghanistan. “Is it really worth a showdown if the Afghans don’t want to prosecute?” one official said. “And what about the quality of the evidence? Anyone could be prosecuted. It doesn’t mean they have to be.”
Many of the prisoners had been held in Bagram for years as enemy combatants, without judicial review by Afghan authorities. Mr. Karzai, who has called the prison a “Taliban-producing factory,” has said repeatedly that he wants to see it closed — although there are hundreds of others being held there by Afghan authorities. The only prisoners known to still be in American custody at the facility are an unknown number of foreign prisoners, believed to be mostly Pakistanis.
Administration officials said they did not want to stake the entire relationship between the two countries on this single issue, and emphasized that they would prefer to wait out Mr. Karzai’s term in office, which ends later this year, than confront him over the release of 65 prisoners.
Such patience was less evident in Congress. One of the most ardent supporters of the American partnership with Afghanistan, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, warned that unless Mr. Karzai backed off the escalating vitriol directed at the United States in recent months, the Afghan leader could destroy what little support was left in Washington for keeping American troops in Afghanistan and, more important, for spending billions of dollars a year there to help finance the country’s government.
Mr. Graham said that he now intended to make good on recent threats to have Congress withhold development assistance to Afghanistan until after Mr. Karzai leaves office. He was confident that Congress would approve it, saying he was one of the few high-profile politicians still committed to the American project in Afghanistan. But “not at any cost,” he added.
“The amount of people advocating for a long-term relationship with Afghanistan is pretty small in Congress,” Mr. Graham said in an interview on Thursday. “No politician in America is going to get much blowback for just pulling out of Afghanistan.”http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/14/world/asia/afghanistan-releases-prisoners-over-us-objections.html?_r=0