BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Thursday morning, 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 US military, here now 12 years.
US 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 it believed were not only dangerous insurgents with US and Afghan blood on their hands, but also men who would be convicted of that in an Afghan court of law.
Instead, US 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 1½-mile long 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.
Karzai, on a visit to Turkey with his defense minister, Bismullah Khan, was unmoved by US cries of foul. “If Afghan judiciary authorities decide to release prisoners, it’s of no concern to the US,” he said, according to a Twitter message from his spokesman, Aimal Faizi.
Many US military leaders could not help but notice 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.”
Karzai continues to refuse to sign a long-term security agreement, which would keep US troops here past this year; the Americans wanted the agreement signed by December, well before the April 5 presidential election in Afghanistan. Last April the US 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.
‘Detainees from this group of 65 are directly linked to attacks killing or wounding 32 US or coalition personnel.’US military
Last March, in response to demands from Karzai, the US 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 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 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 US or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians,” the US 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 e-mail, the US military said it thinks some of these newly freed insurgents had “already returned to the fight.”
That and previous statements this week and last month by the US 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.
Samad said in an interview that he was a farmer, not an insurgent, and had not been given a reason for his arrest.
In its statement, the US military expressed “strong concern about the potential threats these detainees pose to coalition forces and Afghan security forces and civilians.”
Karzai, at a news conference in Ankara on Thursday, said the US military should “stop harassing” the Afghan judiciary, according to Faizi.
The 65 men were ordered released by an Afghan review board, which determined that there was not enough evidence to try them, said Abdul Shakor Dadras.