The Bush administration is negotiating the transfer of nearly 70 percent of the detainees at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to three countries as part of a plan, officials said, to share the burden of keeping suspected terrorists behind bars.
U.S. officials announced yesterday that they have reached an agreement with the government of Afghanistan to transfer most of its nationals to Kabul's "exclusive" control and custody. There are 110 Afghan detainees at Guantanamo and 350 more at the Bagram airfield near Kabul. Their transfers could begin in the next six months.
Pierre-Richard Prosper, ambassador at large for war crimes, who led a U.S. delegation to the Middle East this week, said similar agreements are being pursued with Saudi Arabia and Yemen, whose nationals make up a significant percentage of the Guantanamo population. Prosper held talks in Saudi Arabia on Sunday and Monday, but negotiations were cut off after the announcement of King Fahd's death.
The decision to move more than 20 percent of the detainees at Guantanamo to Afghanistan and to largely clear out the detention center at Bagram is part of a broader plan to significantly reduce the population of "enemy combatants" in U.S. custody. Senior U.S. officials said yesterday's agreement is the first major step toward whittling down the Guantanamo population to a core group of people the United States expects to hold indefinitely.
"This is not an effort to shut down Guantanamo. Rather, the arrangement we have reached with the government of Afghanistan is the latest step in what has long been our policy -- that we need to keep dangerous enemy combatants off the battlefield," Matthew Waxman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, said shortly after leaving Kabul with Prosper. "We, the U.S., don't want to be the world's jailer. We think a more prudent course is to shift that burden onto our coalition partners."
The negotiations come amid intense international and domestic pressure on U.S. detention operations, with allegations of mistreatment and abuse as well as concern that detainees have been held for years without being prosecuted for their alleged crimes. Legal problems have also plagued the prosecutorial process at Guantanamo, which has been blocked for months as detainees' attorneys present challenges in U.S. federal courts.
"The Guantanamo issue is clearly a liability for the Bush administration, and emptying it has become a priority," said John Sifton, a specialist on Afghanistan and detainee issues at Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring group. "It's not a victory for human rights if a whole set of people deprived of their liberty are then moved to another place and continued to be deprived of their liberty unlawfully."
The agreement with Afghanistan is the largest of its kind so far. Prosper said yesterday that the U.S. government is working to send 129 Saudis and 107 Yemenis from Guantanamo to the custody of their home countries. If the U.S. government is able to arrange the transfer of detainees who came from all three countries, the population at the U.S. facility will drop by 68 percent, from 510 to 164.
Because the United States could hold on to those detainees who are considered by officials to pose the greatest terrorist threat, the numbers could change slightly. Negotiations depend on the cooperation of the other nations.
"We're now engaging the countries with the largest populations, so we expect to see the largest potential movement from Guantanamo," Prosper said in an interview from Dubai. "So if we can reach an understanding with these countries that will allow us to return them with the greatest assurances, then this will be the biggest movement yet out of Guantanamo."
Prosper and Waxman said that before such transfers can occur, the detainees' home countries must commit to taking steps that will prevent enemy combatants from re-engaging in hostile activity, and commit to treating the detainees humanely.
A major obstacle to the transfer of detainees to Afghanistan is infrastructure. U.S. officials have agreed to help Afghanistan build an appropriate prison and to train its guards.
One possible interim solution under consideration is that Afghan detainees at Guantanamo could be transferred to Bagram until permanent facilities are built. Prosper said such facilities could allow a gradual transfer over the next six months.
The United States considers all the remaining detainees to be medium- or high-risk and therefore not eligible for release once handed over, as has happened with about 70 detainees released earlier to about a dozen countries.
Over the past year, U.S. military authorities have released several dozen Afghans that have been determined as not posing a threat. But President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called on the United States to hand over all Afghan citizens. He raised the issue during a meeting with President Bush in May.
"I don't expect it will be too long before the actual transfer of detainees will start. It should be a matter of months to build the facilities," said Karim Rahimi, a spokesman for Karzai.
Senior military officials and members of Congress have said in recent days that the goal is to reduce the population at Guantanamo to a point at which the detainees who are the highest security risks can be held at the modern prison buildings there, while the rest of the facility could be "mothballed" for possible future use. Guantanamo's Camp V and the future Camp VI are modeled after U.S. domestic prisons.
In a military fact sheet about "the future" of Guantanamo, developed in early July, defense officials indicated that the operational priority of the facility is to shift from intelligence gathering to long-term detention.
The document noted that "the significant majority of detainees are no longer regularly interrogated" and that officials expect the population to decrease.
"The way that we've looked at it is that in waging the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, we will continue to capture enemy fighters and need to prevent them from returning to the battlefield," Waxman said. "But it need not be the U.S. who detains them for the long term."
Correspondent N.C. Aizenman in Kabul and researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.