The agreement marked a significant concession by the United States, which has been reluctant to hand over responsibility for its detention operations to a government with a poor human rights record and a weak judicial system.
Still, it leaves the U.S. military with considerable authority. American soldiers may continue to detain individuals whom commanders deem particularly dangerous even after the six-month transition period.
The United States will also retain veto power if it disagrees with the Afghan government’s decision to release certain inmates, according to the agreement, which was signed by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.
U.S. officials appeared delighted to have reached a deal just weeks after the burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan sparked a wave of violent protests and brought the relationship between the two countries to a perilous low.
“This is a message of peace and stability for the region,” Allen said in a statement. “It is also a message for the Taliban: Your options are getting fewer and fewer. The time is now to join the peace process and be part of the future of Afghanistan.”
Under the agreement, the U.S. military will transfer legal responsibility for batches of detainees over the next six months, until nearly all of the more than 3,000 inmates are nominally in Afghan custody.
Some human rights activists expressed concern that the Afghan government has not created a legal framework to assume responsibility for the detention system. John Sifton, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Afghanistan should immediately pass a law that “explains the foundation of this system of administrative detention, when it expires and how it will be renewed.”
He noted that among the first acts of an Iraqi sovereign government was the declaration of a state of emergency, which allowed for the creation of a detention system compatible with international law.
The Afghan system, Sifton said, “is lawless because there is literally no law.”
The agreement does not address the cases of the roughly 50 non-Afghan prisoners held by U.S. forces here.
An Afghan general will be appointed as the commander of the Parwan detention facility, a state-of-the-art complex designed to the standards of a U.S. federal prison. Parwan is next to Bagram air base, one of the largest U.S. military installations in the country.
U.S. military officials will work alongside Afghan corrections officials as advisers for a time beyond the transition period and will seek to ensure that detainees are not mistreated, U.S. officials said. Because the Afghan government is not expected to be able to run the highly sophisticated facility without substantial help after the transition period, the U.S. military will build more rudimentary cell blocks in Bagram and at a prison near Kabul, the officials said.