A dispute over the fate of about three dozen militants held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan has disrupted negotiations over a long-term security agreement to leave U.S. troops in the country after 2014.
The United States has refused to turn over the prisoners — deemed especially dangerous compared with more than 3,000 already transferred to Afghan control — unless President Hamid Karzai guarantees they will not be released. He has so far declined.
As tensions have risen in recent days, Karzai has accused the United States of breaking an agreement on the transfers. On Tuesday, he warned that his government might move to take over the U.S.-supervised prison at Bagram air base where they are held. During a visit last weekend by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Karzai accused the United States of torturing Afghan civilians and colluding with the Taliban to prolong the war.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., ordered American troops to intensify security measures on Wednesday out of concern that Karzai’s statements are creating a greater risk of attack from rogue Afghan security forces and insurgents.
The Obama administration considers the detainee problem a short-term disagreement unrelated to the strategic negotiations on Afghanistan’s future security. But Karzai has linked the two issues, drawing a direct line between U.S. acceptance of Afghanistan’s legal sovereignty and the U.S. demand that Afghanistan grant legal immunity to American troops within its borders after the 2014 withdrawal.
Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Karzai, said the “lack of trust” that the United States has exhibited over the prisoners and other matters “certainly will have a negative impact on the bilateral security agreement.”
U.S. officials agree that a stalemate has been reached. “But we’re not sure whether we have a systemic walkback or just a technical issue that we have not moved to resolution quickly enough,” a senior administration official said. A late spring deadline to complete the security deal is “at risk of slipping,” the official said.
As Karzai’s rhetoric has become more inflamed, the administration has largely held its tongue. U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid escalating the confrontation, say they understand that Karzai has a domestic political audience so they’re giving him a chance to vent.
“His politics are, of course, different from ours,” the senior administration official said. “For us, the premium is on force protection,” and not allowing dangerous insurgents to return to the battlefield; “for him, the premium is on Afghan sovereignty.”
In response to the Dunford troop directive, first reported by the New York Times, Karzai reportedly told Afghans gathered at the presidential palace Thursday that his comments “were meant to help reform, not destroy the relationship.”
Although he is due to leave office next year, Karzai and his political allies face the prospect of how to survive after the withdrawal of Western combat troops and are determined to portray themselves as nationalist leaders.
The Karzai-U.S. relationship has always been a precarious one, propped up by patience and mutual need. But the instability has become more problematic as the administration rushes to withdraw 66,000 combat forces by the end of 2014 and persuade Congress and the American taxpayer to fund its long-term security plan for Afghanistan.
For President Obama’s endgame to work, a series of events must happen in relatively tight sequence during the next two years. The terms of the bilateral security agreement, known as a BSA, must be drafted as the administration finalizes the number of military trainers, advisers and counterterrorism forces it wants to remain in Afghanistan and specifies their mission.
The number and mission have direct bearing on the phased departure of U.S. combat troops, half of whom are scheduled to leave by next February. The uncertainty also affects Germany, Britain, Italy and other U.S. allies who have agreed to leave some forces behind, as well as the State Department and other civilian agencies trying to finalize post-war plans.
Once Karzai’s government approves an accord, it will require political and popular endorsement in Afghanistan, a process likely to become more complicated with the approach of elections scheduled for early 2014.
Looming over the negotiations is the memory of Iraq. Efforts to forge a similar agreement there went down to the wire before collapsing over the issue of troop immunity. The result was cancellation of plans for a postwar U.S. force, chalked up by Obama critics as a major foreign-policy failure.
Plans for how many U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan are unclear. Last week, Gen. James N. Mattis, head of the U.S. Central Command, told lawmakers that he has recommended leaving 13,600 U.S. and 6,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, significantly above what officials say the administration is considering.
The senior administration official said no final decision has been made. “We’re kind of in an interim phase right now, refining options,” the official said.
There is already opposition in some quarters to footing the bill for continued operations in Afghanistan. Karzai’s intransigence “is going to diminish our support at home,” the senior administration official said. “We don’t think that the prime window to get this done . . . is later. We think it’s sooner. On both sides, it gets more complicated.”
Last year, the United States agreed to give Afghans custody of thousands of battlefield prisoners at Parwan prison at the sprawling U.S. base at Bagram, north of Kabul.
With U.S. assistance, Afghan prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges have been trying the prisoners for crimes under the Afghan penal code. Many have been convicted and sentenced, but about 100 a month are released for lack of evidence.
At the end of last year, about 3,800 detainees remained at Parwan, only about 700 of whom were still under American control. Among them are 30 to 40 prisoners regarded by the U.S. military as “enduring security threats” who are considered most likely to return to the battlefield if released. U.S. officials say there is not enough unclassified evidence to convict them under Afghan law, which means they could go free if transferred to Afghan control.
A verbal agreement to turn over the high-threat prisoners was reached during Karzai’s visit to Washington in January, with explicit mention of the larger issue of immunity for U.S. troops. “In exchange for us finally granting respect of his sovereignty he was looking for,” the senior administration official said, Karzai agreed to an immunity provision and “finally said yes, you’re going to get your BSA.”
But when Afghan and U.S. officials convened in Kabul to put the prisoner accord in writing, they tried to find a way to guarantee that the high-risk detainees would remain in custody. They failed to come up with language that was acceptable to Karzai.
The handover was scheduled for March 8, but the U.S. military command called it off after Karzai refused to sign the written version of the transfer agreement.
One U.S. official acknowledged that the effort to retain some U.S. control over the high-risk detainees is ultimately a losing battle no matter how the current conflict is resolved. After 2014, with or without a long-term security agreement, they will all be turned over to Afghanistan to do with as it wishes.
Sieff reported from Kabul.