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Q&A: Detainee releases prisoner to US-Afghan relations

© Photo: AFP

Video by Leela JACINTO

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2014-02-14

The US has lashed out at Afghan authorities over Thursday’s release of 65 detainees who are viewed by Washington as dangerous militants. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has rejected the criticism of his government’s decision.

The latest prisoner release has exacerbated tensions between Washington and the Karzai administration as the US prepares to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto analyses the context and grievances surrounding the issue.

The release of these prisoners has sparked an unusually strong condemnation from the US and an equally defiant response by the Afghan authorities. Why? What’s at stake here?

LJ: There are many things at stake: security, sovereignty, justice, impunity. But at the heart of the matter, it’s an emotional issue. There’s a deep sense of betrayal on both sides: the US and the Karzai administration toward the end of an engagement that has dragged on for more than a decade and cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

First of all, let’s take the Bagram detention facility, located on a sprawling base outside Kabul. In the Afghan imagination, Bagram is a symbol of the US presence – some call it “occupation” – in Afghanistan, which is why it’s sometimes called “Afghanistan’s Guantanamo”.

But that’s a misnomer these days because the US has handed over control of the detention facility to the Afghans.

The handover was a drawn-out, phased process, which began in 2012 and was finally completed in 2013. One of the key sticking points was the issue of what the US calls “enduring security threats”.

The US had flagged 88 detainees as enduring security threats. On February 13 of course, Afghan authorities released 65 of them.

Under the 2013 Afghan/US Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) – which has not been released, but has been seen by Kate Clark of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, the Afghan authorities had agreed that “for those detainees who are determined by the prosecutor to be a threat but cannot yet be prosecuted, the prosecutor, in consultation with the National Security Council, is to ask the court for continued detention under Afghan law.”

According to Clark, the MoU “speaks specifically about enduring security threats… and it appears to commit Afghanistan to their continued detention.”

In other words, it was agreed that for highly dangerous prisoners, they can be detained and tried in special courts in exceptional situations – if the evidence is based on intelligence that cannot be released, for instance.

So, from the US perspective, the Afghan government has reneged on its commitment. The US also claims they have supplied “realms” of evidence against these detainees.

From the Afghan perspective, there are deep misgivings about detaining Afghan citizens without charges. Ever since the handover of the detention facility at Bagram, the Afghan authorities have been releasing hundreds of prisoners without prosecuting them. It’s quite clear that there’s been a pattern of mass prisoner releases from Bagram by the Karzai administration.

Why has Karzai done it?

LJ: It’s no secret that Karzai sees the detainees at Bagram as victims of US oppression. He has described the jail as a “Taliban-making factory”. For Karzai, the idea of foreigners detaining Afghan citizens is a sovereignty issue.
Technically, this is a justice issue, not an issue for the executive. But the Afghan Review Board that makes this decision is made up of three members – who are appointed by the president.

Now Karzai regularly faces pressure from tribal elders and community leaders to release their relatives or tribesmen. Karzai needs the political support of these elders and community leaders. It’s a very populist move.

Even though Karzai is not running for re-election this year, because he can’t seek another term under Afghan law, there’s a widespread view that Karzai is seeking to install an ally who will keep him close to the presidential palace he has occupied for more than a decade. The election is set for April 5, so these are Karzai’s last few weeks in office and he’s setting the stage for his exit.

Are these prisoner releases related to the talks with the Taliban? What’s happening on that front?

LJ: Prisoner releases have long been a Taliban condition for peace talks. In fact, for the Taliban, securing the release of their members is such a priority, they even have a special commission tasked with securing and enabling prisoner releases.

On talking to the Taliban front, it’s all a bit murky and this issue has also turned into a victim of the increasingly acrimonious relationship between Karzai and Washington.

Last year, the Taliban opened an office in Qatar to much fanfare. But Karzai was very displeased about it since he believed the US was trying to sideline him by establishing contacts with Taliban representatives via the Qatar office. So, not surprisingly, nothing came of those talks.

Now, earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Karzai himself has been engaged in secret contacts with the Taliban – without the involvement of the US.

The secret contacts appear to help explain a string of actions by Karzai that seem designed to antagonize Washington. The biggest problem of course is Karzai’s continuing refusal to sign the crucial long-term security agreement – that he himself negotiated.

I believe these latest prisoner releases can definitely be seen in this light, they appear to be linked with what Karzai is trying to achieve in his negotiations with the Taliban.

There’s no suggestion, it must be said, that the Taliban are demanding the release of X or Y prisoner. But it’s definitely a sign that Karzai is sending to the Afghan people and the Taliban in his last few weeks in office.

Date created : 2014-02-14

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