BAGRAM, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai welcomed Monday’s handover of the main American-run prison to Afghan forces as a victory for Afghan sovereignty, though he and U.S. officials remain locked in a dispute over the fate of hundreds of Taliban and terror suspects behind bars.
The United States is withholding the transfer of scores of inmates, reportedly out of concern that Afghan authorities may simply let some detainees go and no longer hold dangerous prisoners without charge.
American irritation was apparent at the ceremony at the prison, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Kabul. No higher ranking American officers attended, although the Afghan government sent its defense minister, army chief of staff and other officials.
“Now, the Bagram prison is converted to one of Afghanistan’s regular prisons where the innocents will be freed and the rest of the prisoners will be sentenced according to the laws of Afghanistan,” the statement said.
The more than 2,000 Afghan military policemen now at the prison said the inmates were pleased to be guarded by Afghans.
“We are Afghan and they are Afghan. They are Muslim. We are Muslim,” said Ashna Gul, a military policeman from Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. “We can see each other through the steel windows. Sometimes we are laughing and joking with the prisoners and they are happy with our guys.”
Firoz Khan, another military policeman from Nangarhar, said some of the inmates ask him to get them more soap and shampoo.
“We sympathize with them because they are prisoners and they are away from their families,” Khan said.
Hours after the handover ceremony, a suicide attack killed 15 people and wounded 25 others in the northern city of Kunduz. The bombing was a stark reminder that insurgents continue their fight against Afghan and U.S.-led coalition troops and that many detainees at the prison are suspected of organizing such attacks.
The U.S. began detention operations at Bagram Air Field in early 2002. For several years, prisoners were kept at a former Soviet aircraft machine plant converted into a lockup. In 2009, the U.S. opened a new detention facility next door. The number of detainees incarcerated at the prison, now called the Parwan Detention Facility, has swelled from about 1,100 in September 2010 to 3,110 in the spring of this year.
The prison has been the focus of controversy in the past but never had the notoriety of the prisons at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Had al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden been captured instead of killed, CIA Director Leon Panetta said he would have been taken to Bagram first, then probably to Guantanamo Bay.
Earlier this year, the prison gained unwanted attention when hundreds of Qurans and other religious materials were taken from its library and sent to a burn pit at the military base. The event triggered scores of deadly anti-American protests across Afghanistan. More than 30 Afghans and six U.S. soldiers were killed during the violent demonstrations. Karzai said Qurans would never have been burned if Afghans had been in control of the prison then.
Karzai and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding about the future of the detention facility on March 9, following tense negotiations that frequently stalled.
Since then, the U.S. has transferred 3,082 detainees to Afghan control, according to Afghan Army Gen. Ghulam Farouk, who now heads the prison. He said Monday that the U.S. was in the process of transferring the remaining 30 inmates picked up before the memorandum was signed plus another 600 captured after the signing.