But U.S. officials decided that the Afghan legal system is still too weak to permit the handover of the Parwan Detention Center, even after the United States spent millions attempting to improve the country’s judiciary. The United States will now be unable to relinquish authority at Parwan until at least 2014, just as the last foreign troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan.
“At this point, the Afghans don’t have the legal framework or the capacity to deal with violence being inflicted on the country by the insurgency,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
The existence of the U.S. military prison near Bagram Airfield, about 30 miles north of Kabul, has long been seen by Afghans as a sign of imperial overreach, and it has been singled out for criticism by President Hamid Karzai.
The U.S. military has detained suspected insurgents at facilities in the area for nearly a decade. Most have been kept without trial, with less than a third of the prison’s detainees having been handed over for prosecution to an Afghan-run court.
The prison population has grown rapidly as the U.S. military has expanded its operations in Afghanistan: Military officials say that over the past three years, the number of detainees has tripled. Parwan now holds 2,600 inmates, ranging from high-profile insurgents to those who have played a more peripheral role in the conflict.
The transfer of the prison — an agglomeration of cinder-block rooms and cellblocks built in 2009 to replace an older, dilapidated facility — was supposed to be part of a broader transition to Afghan control that began this summer. Seven cities and provinces have been formally transferred to Afghan security forces in the past month.
A transition at Parwan was expected to hold special symbolic value: Afghan defense officials argue that the Taliban has successfully used the prison for propaganda to galvanize insurgents, drawing on reports of harsh interrogation methods. An Army investigation into the deaths of two detainees in 2002 uncovered evidence of prisoners being chained to the ceiling by their wrists, and being severely beaten by guards.
“There’s no question that taking control and bringing these courts within Afghan law will be a significant step,” said Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai, the deputy minister of justice.
But as the number of detainees at Parwan continues to grow, U.S. officials say that giving Afghans control over the fates of suspected insurgents would allow dangerous Taliban fighters to slip through the cracks of an undeveloped legal system.