Senators warn Afghans of ‘backlash’ from prisoner release

Senator John McCain said freeing detainees without trial threatens the US alliance.
Senator John McCain said freeing detainees without trial threatens the US alliance.

KABUL — The Afghan government’s plan to release 88 high-profile detainees without trial ‘‘would have an unbelievably negative impact’’ on US-Afghan relations, according to two of Congress’s biggest advocates for an enduring American presence here.

During a visit to Kabul on Thursday, Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that while their differences with President Hamid Karzai were narrowing on many issues, the prisoner release threatens to undermine bilateral relations at a critical moment — as the deadline for an enduring security agreement looms.

In March 2013, the United States transferred control over the Parwan prison next to Bagram Airfield — with its roughly 3,000 detainees — to the Afghan government. Since then, Graham said, the Afghans have released 560 detainees without trial, and ‘‘some of those have gone back to the fight.’’


Now, the Afghan government is considering releasing 88 detainees who are of particular concern to the United States. Collectively, Graham said, they killed 60 members of the US-led International Security Assistance Force.

When the United States transferred control of the Parwan Detention Center, it mandated that detainees with evidence against them be tried in Afghan courts. US officials say that agreement is being violated, because the cases are being decided only by a review board, which lacks the judicial authority to make such rulings.

‘‘Release of these individuals by the Afghan Review Board undermines Afghan rule of law because the Afghan people do not get their day in court,’’ said Colonel David Lapan, a spokesman for coalition. ‘‘Based on the evidence and the risk these individuals pose to the peace and security of the Afghan people, and in accordance with Afghan law, their cases should be addressed by the formal Afghan justice system.’’

US officials said last year that they understood the risks involved in handing over the prison — the transfer was considered a key part of the transition process — as the United States withdraws its troops and shutters bases. But while they assumed a number of prisoners would be released, they expected the Afghan government at least to follow due process, adjudicating cases through Afghan courts that the United States has spent a decade trying to bolster.


The prisoner release, Graham said, would lead to a ‘‘backlash in the US Congress,’’ which would need to appropriate funds for any long-term American commitment in Afghanistan.

‘‘Unless we resolve these differences, the United States of America has no choice but to not continue with its commitment,’’ McCain said.

The possibility that the 88 prisoners will be released without trial is particularly frustrating to US officials because they had sent evidence to the Review Board that might have led to a flurry of convictions. That evidence is apparently being ignored.