As opposed to the formal NATO-sponsored reintegration program, which forces militants to sever ties with the insurgency, the strategic release program does not require detainees to formally disavow their relationship to the Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami or other insurgent groups. In some cases, detainees are expected to maintain those connections and use them to further peace-building efforts between the Americans and the insurgents.
“We look at detainees who have influence over other insurgents — individuals whose release could have a calming effect in an entire area,” one U.S. official said. “In those cases, the benefits of release could outweigh the reasons for keeping him detained.”
When the insurgency appears to be gathering steam in certain provinces, for instance, prisoners have been released to alleviate mounting tension.
Some Afghans say they worry that although the program might be effective in quelling violence, it marginalizes their role in the country’s reconciliation process. Afghans often provide intelligence that leads to strategic releases, but Americans ultimately make the decision to release detainees. And in some cases, insurgent commanders attempt to broker deals directly with American officials, excluding the Afghan security forces from the process.
“We tried to get the [insurgent] commanders to work with the Afghan National Army, but they weren’t interested,” said a U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan who worked on a strategic release this year.
One recent case involved a commander with Hezb-i-Islami who was described by Lt. Col. John Woodward, formerly the top U.S. commander in northern Wardak province, as “operationally and tactically a significant player.”
In the Nerkh Valley, a violent swath of Wardak, Woodward had decided that “given our resources, there’s no way we could fight both the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami.”
Although the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami are both insurgent groups, they have different leadership structures and operate independently.
Through local politicians and elders, the American officer began negotiating with Hezb-i-Islami commanders, who for years had been firing at American troops. Those talks progressed, and weeks later, the insurgent group was providing useful intelligence on the whereabouts of Taliban fighters. Before long, the U.S. troops and Hezb-i-Islami fighters were conducting joint operations, traveling in the same vehicles and sleeping on the same bases, Woodward said.
But amid that progress, the insurgent commanders came to Woodward with a request. They wanted a relative — the man considered a “significant player” — to be released from Parwan. Woodward began contacting his superiors about the strategic release program.
Researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.