The U.S. military on Monday turned over its main battlefield prison and about 3,000 inmates to the Afghan government amid fears that the regime may release hundreds of Taliban insurgents who pose a danger to American troops.
The prison is being transferred amid a spike in insider, or “green-on-blue,” attacks in which Afghan police officers or soldiers turn their weapons on their international trainers. The U.S. military command in Afghanistan has moved to shore up a flawed screening process that has allowed Taliban sympathizers to serve alongside Americans.
“We have a serious trust problem with the Afghan security forces, as evidenced by the escalating ‘green on blue’ shootings,” said Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and an Army contractor. “Turn[ing] over Afghan prison keys to these same people will only make matters worse and cost more American lives.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai celebrated the transfer as a victory for his country’s sovereignty and a step toward a planned NATO troop withdrawal by the end of 2014.
“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,” Mr. Karzai said.
Though not discussed publicly by NATO, a concern about recidivism was evident in the fact that the command conducted painstaking negotiations to ensure that the U.S. maintains some influence on inmates in the prison near Bagram Airfield, north of the capital, Kabul. The U.S. also asserted the right to hold scores of particularly dangerous captives when it signed an agreement in March to cede control of the prison.
“Some 99 percent of the detainees captured before 9 March have already been transferred to Afghan authority, but we have paused the transfer of the remaining detainees until our concerns are met,” said Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition.
The March agreement calls for a temporary U.S.-Afghan commission to review who will be held and who will be released.
The U.S. built the Parwan Detention Facility in 2009 as an improvement in living conditions for detainees who had been held in converted airfield hangars. The Army Corps of Engineers continued to add beds, bringing capacity from about 1,600 to more than 3,000.
In late 2010, Navy Vice Adm. Robert S. Harward, who ran the U.S. detention task force, gave reporters a glimpse into the harried world of capturing, transferring and releasing battlefield combatants in a war that began a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Of 5,500 people detained in 2001, 1,100 were deemed dangerous enough to be shipped to the Parwan site. About 500 were released. Of those, just a few were recaptured subsequently on the battlefield.
Since then, the U.S. has shifted more detainees to government control, swelling the prison population to more than 3,000.
“We provide each detainee with human care, custody, medical and dental facilities, on-site family visitation, vocational and educational training,” said Adm. Harward, who today is deputy commander of U.S. Central Command. “And we also work and identify those to be reintegrated back into peaceful society with greater skills when they return to their villages.”
Part of the reintegration involves visiting villages and talking with elders about the importance of accepting released prisoners.
During the war, the command has turned over thousands of captured combatants to Afghan authorities after brief detention at forward operating bases. Adm. Harward did not provide recapture rates for those combatants. The Afghans run their own detention facilities besides the Parwan site.
The mistrust on detention issues was evident at the transfer ceremony Monday.
The Afghan government dispatched its defense minister and armed forces chief of staff. The U.S. command sent an Army colonel as its senior representative, the Associated Press reported.
The AP said there are 2,000 Afghan police officers at the prison, and it quoted one of them, Ashna Gul.
“We are Afghan, and they are Afghan. They are Muslim. We are Muslim,” Mr. Gul said. “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.”
Said Mr. Maginnis: “Afghan prisons are full of Taliban and other radicals. Turn them over to questionably reliable Afghan security forces and then stand back as radicals ‘escape’ to join the fight, killing and wounding more Americans. Turning over prison keys at this point is a shot to the foot.”
The AP said the March agreement does not cover the non-Afghans held at Parwan, including some captured in Iraq.
Human rights lawyers unsuccessfully petitioned judges to allow Afghan detainees to challenge their custody in U.S. courts.
The Obama administration has continued the policy of the George W. Bush administration, which says U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over combatants captured and held overseas.