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US-Afghan ties hit rocks again over release of Taliban prisoners

03 January, 2014

KABUL: A decision to release jailed Taliban militants further aggravated US-Afghan relations on Thursday as pressure mounts for the two countries to sign a deal allowing some American soldiers to stay after 2014.

The plan to free 88 suspected insurgents from Bagram jail has outraged US military officials and senators as final negotiations are underway on the long-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, an influential voice on US military issues, tore into the proposed release of militants who he said had "blood on their hands". "If this release goes forward, it... would have an unbelievably negative impact on the future relationship between the American people and the Afghan government," Graham said on a visit to Kabul.

Graham, who spoke at the American embassy alongside former US presidential nominee John McCain, said freeing the prisoners would do "irreparable damage" to US-Afghan ties. "The 88, to me, represent a defining moment in our relationship," Graham said, adding that the jailed men were responsible for over 60 NATO coalition and 57 Afghan deaths. After a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, Senator McCain said he expected the BSA to be signed soon, despite months of public wrangling and the threat of a complete pullout by US-led NATO forces. "I am confident from our conversation that the differences have been narrowed to a point where we could get things resolved in a very short time," he said. "We don't want to see a repeat of what happened in Iraq where we won the war but lost the peace because of a complete withdrawal." McCain said the proposed prisoner releases did "damage, so we will have to see exactly what transpires before reaching a conclusion as to what actions could be taken".

Bagram jail was finally handed over to Afghan control by the US in March after another public stand-off with Karzai, who has depicted the jail as a symbol of Afghanistan's efforts to regain its national sovereignty. Many of those still held in Bagram are suspected high-level Taliban fighters, and the US has long been concerned Afghanistan's weak and corruption-prone security forces could allow them to return to the battlefield. A review board last year ordered the release of 648 Bagram prisoners, of whom 560 have been freed. The US is disputing the release of the final 88.

US General Joseph Dunford, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, this week lodged an official objection to the plan, saying it was against the agreement signed when Bagram was handed over. Senator Graham said Thursday that some of the freed prisoners were already back fighting in the insurgency that has raged against NATO forces and the Afghan government since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001. President Karzai's office released a statement after he met with the senators, saying that Afghanistan wanted innocent inmates released and criminals punished.

"The president noted that the establishment of (Bagram) prison, and the detentions made are in contradiction with the Afghan laws, as a result of which a large number of our innocent countrymen spent years in prison," it added. Underlining continuing instability in Afghanistan, six people were killed when a bomb exploded in a market in Logar province, east of Kabul. If the BSA is signed, several thousand US troops would remain in Afghanistan to provide training and assistance to the police and national army after the NATO combat mission ends in December.

Without the pact, Washington could pull most of its troops out after this year, when most foreign troops are due to exit. The senators told Karzai that releasing dangerous prisoners would irreparably damage ties with the United States, but stopped short of saying it would prompt a full military withdrawal after 2014. "If these releases go ahead it will do irreparable damage to the relationship," Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters.

Washington considers the 88 prisoners a serious threat to security. It wants them to be investigated and tried. Afghanistan says there is not enough evidence to keep them detained. Karzai has called the so-called "zero option" over the pact an empty threat and suggested any deal can wait until after the presidential elections in April.


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