by Matthew Rosenberg
New York Times
January 9, 2014
KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on Thursday ordered the release of dozens of prisoners accused of having American blood on their hands, saying there was not enough evidence to hold them and intensifying his showdown with Obama administration officials after weeks of warnings that he risked losing American troop support.
The move threatened to plunge relations to a new state of crisis even as a broader, long-term security agreement between the two countries has been held up for weeks.
American officials have said that the prisoners to be released are dangerous Taliban militants and that freeing them without trial would violate an agreement on detainees reached last year.
That detention authority deal was considered a prerequisite to the security pact, known as the bilateral security agreement, which would allow for a continued American troop presence and aid past 2014.
Still, just a week after some American officials insisted that such a prisoner release would prove that Mr. Karzai could not be trusted to honor a security deal, the initial American response on Thursday was cautious. Officials were critical of the release, but also careful to say that the move would not harm the security deal and that they were still trying to get a full accounting for the decision.
“We don’t tie it to B.S.A.,” one Obama administration official said, referring to the security agreement and noting that it was a “separate deal,” while speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The suddenly tempered language from the administration raised the prospect that Mr. Karzai had again called an American bluff, or that the Americans might be sending mixed signals about the White House’s intent.
Mr. Karzai has been increasingly successful in pushing his demands past the point of American resistance in recent years, including the issue of detention. That has led some Afghan officials familiar with his thinking to say that the Afghan president has concluded that the United States was willing to bend as far as he wanted it to in order to keep troops here.
That calculation was on clear display in November, when just a few days after giving his tentative approval to the troop agreement’s wording, Mr. Karzai abruptly reversed course and said he would not sign it until months after American officials had said it would be too late. He persisted after American officials insisted that he was risking billions of dollars in international aid, and then he began to add conditions, including that the Americans bring Taliban negotiators to the table with Mr. Karzai’s government.
An American official said Thursday night that the American ambassador in Kabul, James B. Cunningham, reported in an internal cable that he did not think Mr. Karzai would agree to sign the accord before Afghanistan’s elections in April. News of the cable was first reported online by The Washington Post.
The Obama administration wants the agreement to be signed soon so that the United States and its NATO allies, who are pursuing a similar agreement, will have time to make plans for a post-2014 force.
“There is not a lot of time left before that planning has to begin,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said earlier Thursday.
But instead of dealing with the security pact, Mr. Karzai’s government appears to be reviving an old dispute. Last year, American officials initially resisted Mr. Karzai’s demands to turn over authority over detainees to the Afghans, saying they were worried that Afghan officials would be too quick to release dangerous militants who would then return to the battlefield. The Americans said Mr. Karzai’s promise that it would not happen that way cleared the path for the security agreement.
On Thursday, Afghan officials said that in ordering the release of 72 detainees, they were following legal procedure because neither American nor Afghan security officials could produce evidence that the men had been involved in killing troops.
“We have the right to release the men,” said Aimal Faizi, Mr. Karzai’s spokesman. “The Americans know very well they do not have anything that is solid against these detainees.” He characterized some of the evidence as being nothing more than fingerprints on guns, noting that almost everyone in Afghanistan owned a gun.
The prisoners are being held near Bagram Air Base at what was the main American prison in Afghanistan. Mr. Faizi said that the exact timing of their release would be up to prison officials and the three-member Afghan detention commission that recommended the move.
The commission could not be immediately reached for comment, though one of its leading members, Abdul Shakor Dadras, said last week that the releases would begin soon after a final decision was made.
Mr. Faizi said that for Mr. Karzai, the issue was separate from the long-term security deal. “The president is doing exactly what he has to do as someone who is responsible for all Afghans,” he said.
Jen Psaki, the spokeswoman for the State Department, criticized the release, saying that it undermined justice under Afghan law and that the detainees being freed were “dangerous criminals against whom there is strong evidence linking them to terror-related crimes, including the use of improvised explosive devices, the largest killer of Afghan civilians.”
But she, too, did not tie the release to prospects for an American security agreement. “Our view continues to be, despite these reports, that it’s not only desired by the United States for the Afghans to sign the B.S.A., but it’s in the interest of the Afghan people.”
Just a week earlier, some American officials were suggesting that the two issues were related. One of the strongest statements came from Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who along with Senator John McCain of Arizona met with Mr. Karzai last week in Kabul. And they told the Afghan president over lunch that releasing the prisoners could provoke Congress to slash aid to Afghanistan.
Since Afghanistan took over detention authority in March, the Afghan commission has set free 560 prisoners and recommended that 114 be tried on accusations of insurgent activities. That left 88 other detainees whose cases had to be ruled on.
In late December, the commission decided that there was not enough evidence and ruled that all 88 suspects should be freed. But the Americans and the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, which is supposed to make recommendations to the prisoner review commission, both objected and were given more time to come up with evidence against the prisoners.
Mr. Faizi said Thursday that the directorate, after reviewing the evidence it could collect, ended up recommending in a meeting with Mr. Karzai that only 16 of the 88 be prosecuted. “Some of these detainees have been held as long as seven years for unknown reasons,” he said.
Mr. Karzai then ordered the remaining 72 freed.
Other Afghan officials said that was not the case. The 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. Mr. Karzai, according to the security official and another Afghan familiar with the president’s thinking, saw freeing the prisoners as a way to accomplish two goals: He could curry favor with the Taliban in hopes of bringing the insurgents to talks, and he could punish the United States for what he considered its insincere effort to initiate peace talks.
Mr. Karzai was also said to be upset over the reported revelations in a new memoir by the former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates about Mr. Obama’s apparent dislike of the Afghan leader and his lack of faith in the American war effort here.
An adviser to Mr. Karzai suggested that his deepening animus for the United States was at least partly behind the decision to free the men. The adviser also argued that if the prisoners later attacked American or Afghan forces, it would be because they had been tortured in prison.
“An official in the meeting told the president that these men have been tortured and kept in very bad conditions, and the president agreed,” the adviser said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.