THE AGREEMENT announced this week to repatriate 110 Afghan detainees from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is a breakthrough of sorts in the thorny problem of managing captives in the war on terrorism. Unlike previous detainees to be sent home, this group is still deemed of considerable risk, not eligible for release. Yet along with 350 others being held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, they gradually will be turned over to the custody of Afghan authorities, who have given assurances that they will be prevented from rejoining the fight. The United States, in turn, will help build infrastructure to detain them and train Afghan forces to staff it. According to a report by staff writers Josh White and Robin Wright, the administration is pursuing similar arrangements with Saudi Arabia and Yemen. If it succeeds, the inmate population of Guantanamo will be reduced by 68 percent.
Repatriating detainees for incarceration at home makes sense. There is no good reason for America to shoulder the entire burden of locking up captives in the war on terrorism while allied countries wax indignant about treatment of their nationals who pose as much threat to their home countries as they do to U.S. forces or civilians. If these people are dangerous -- as review panels have found them to be -- it is reasonable to ask their countries to take some responsibility for them. In general, if the administration can accomplish this without releasing people who will quickly take up arms anew, it would be a considerable accomplishment.
But turning these people over raises potentially significant human rights concerns that the administration must confront. The legal authority of the home countries to continue detaining people must be clearly articulated lest the United States be seen as encouraging lawless jailings. More fundamentally, these are not countries with stellar human rights records; Saudi Arabia's is absolutely dreadful. Shifting the indefinite detention of enemy fighters from Guantanamo could, therefore, end up meaning worse treatment for the detainees. For this reason, it is essential that the administration receive serious assurances of humane treatment -- including access by international organizations -- not just the sort of paper pledges it has gotten in some instances. In the case of Afghanistan, which has a responsible government and where American forces will play some supporting role, this should be manageable. Less clear is what sort of assurances and international access might make detentions viable in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most closed societies.
Repatriating detainees en masse offers an opportunity for the administration to relieve pressure on its own detention facilities. But it must take care to avoid a situation in which abuse of large numbers of inmates by foreign surrogates could appear to have taken place on America's behalf.