Pledges of mutual cooperation masked a behind-the-scenes dispute regarding about three dozen captives whom the United States has refused to release. The U.S.-led military coalition also held back the transfer of more than 600 more recently captured prisoners, but officials said that process would begin next week.
Even some Afghan officials fear that courts will end up releasing dangerous captives from the prison, because judges here often do not accept evidence gathered from intelligence sources. The United States has held some suspected militants for years on the basis of classified, undisclosed evidence, drawing international criticism. Allegations of abuse of detainees at the prison have stoked anti-American feeling here.
At Monday’s midmorning ceremony, the Afghan army formally took custody of hundreds of inmates accused of fighting for or supporting the Taliban and other Islamist militants battling Afghan and NATO forces during the 11-year-old war.
The handover marked a victory for President Hamid Karzai, fulfilling an agreement he struck six months ago with the United States. Karzai did not attend the ceremony at Bagram air base, 30 miles from Kabul, but he dispatched top generals and ministers to talk glowingly of the transition.
“It is a matter of great happiness and pride that a major step is being taken for the restoration of Afghanistan’s national sovereignty, the rule of law and justice,” Justice Minister Habibullah Ghalib said.
Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, the country’s top military commander, also sat in the reviewing stand, overlooking hundreds of assembled troops standing at rigid attention. Afterward, he expressed confidence that his army has the capacity to operate and secure Parwan. “We may have some challenges, but gradually, we will overcome the challenges,” Karimi said.
The prison handover is part of a larger transitioning of security responsibilities to Afghan forces — the linchpin of the U.S. plan to pull out its combat troops at the end of 2014.
The ceremony included the hoisting of Afghanistan’s flag and exclamations of “God is great” by the Afghan troops. The Karzai government provided helicopter transport to more than 50 local and foreign journalists to chronicle the event.
No high-ranking U.S. military officers or senior officials attended the ceremony. Army Col. Robert M. Taradash, who has overseen the prison, represented coalition forces. He said the United States had fulfilled its side of the March 9 agreement with Karzai.
At one point, Parwan held more than 3,000 inmates, but hundreds have been transferred to other facilities or released. “There were prisoners released who promptly joined the Taliban,” said one Afghan official familiar with the process, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his account contradicted those of the government.