KABUL — The Afghan government on Thursday released 65 suspected Taliban militants from prison, ignoring repeated and vehement protests from the U.S. military, which fears that the men are likely to return the battlefield.
The release was a starkly public illustration of Washington’s growing inability to influence the actions of President Hamid Karzai’s government and is certain to further poison U.S.-Afghan relations, threatening the prospect of an orderly withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of the year.
In a statement issued after the men walked out of an Afghan-controlled prison next to a massive American base north of the capital, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul condemned the release.
“The Afghan government bears responsibility for the results of its decision,” the embassy said in an uncharacteristically sternly worded statement. “We urge it to make every effort to ensure that those released do not commit new acts of violence and terror.”
Karzai said through a spokesman: “I hope that the United States will stop harassing Afghanistan’s procedures and judicial authority. Afghanistan is a sovereign country. If Afghan judiciary authorities decide to release prisoners, it’s of no concern to the U.S.”
U.S. military officials warned that the Afghan government was endangering its forces and civilians during a crucial year.
“Violent criminals who harm Afghans and who threaten the peace and security of Afghanistan should face justice in the Afghan courts, where a fair and transparent trial would determine their guilt or innocence,” the military said.
U.S. military officials said the detainees were “directly linked” to attacks that killed or wounded 32 NATO troops — including Americans — as well as 23 Afghan security forces and civilians.
The Afghan government, which has long viewed U.S. detainee operations in Afghanistan as an affront to its sovereignty, has said that it reviewed the evidence against 88 former U.S. inmates and concluded that the majority were innocent.
“That is why they were freed today and are on the way to their homes,” said Abdul Shokoor Dadras, a senior member of the review board that studied the cases. “Legally, we have no right to hold these people. We are studying the cases of the rest of the prisoners to see which one deserves to be punished and which one needs to be freed.”
Karzai has called the U.S. detention center at Bagram air base a Taliban “factory” where innocent Afghans have become radicalized.
On the eve of the release, U.S. officials took the rare step of disclosing the names of a handful of detainees set for release along with a summary of the evidence against them.
One, Mohammad Wali, was detained in Helmand province last May after investigators found his fingerprints on the residue of roadside bombs that targeted Afghan and foreign troops, the U.S. military said.
Another, Nek Mohammad, was captured the same month in Kandahar province in possession of several artillery rounds that U.S. military officials suspected were part of an arsenal used to target their bases, the military said.
Afghanistan’s fledgling court system has traditionally given more weight to confessions than the type of forensic analysis that U.S. military personnel see as irrefutable evidence of guilt. It has released several former U.S. detainees over the past few years, in some instances as gestures to appease political factions and power brokers.
The release comes amid an impasse between Kabul and Washington over a security pact that could keep as many as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after the end of the year. Karzai has thus far refused to sign the document, arguing that he will do so only if Washington helps broker a peace deal between the Afghan state and the Taliban. U.S. officials have called that goal unrealistic.
Several U.S. lawmakers, exasperated by what they see as Karzai’s intransigence, saw the prisoner release as the last straw. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) threatened earlier in the week to lead an effort to suspend all aid to the Afghan government if the release went forward.
“President Karzai, in my view, is single-handedly destroying this relationship,” Graham said during a hearing. “I look forward to developing a bipartisan plan to push back as hard as possible.”
U.S. officials say the release of the men violates an agreement on detainee transfers that was reached with the Afghan government in 2012. The deal included a clause saying that the countries could hold an “exchange of views” in the event of a disagreement over the release of prisoners. The United States invoked that clause in the latest cases — to no avail.
While some Afghans hailed the release as a milestone in the country’s quest for sovereignty, others expressed fear and dismay.
A security analyst and former general, Javid Kohistani, said Karzai’s aim in freeing the detainees was to “prompt the Taliban to start talks with his government or get their support to vote for his favorite in the presidential election.”
Amina Zia Massoud, daughter of a vice presidential hopeful, called the freed men dangerous. “Taliban criminals who are released always restore back to fighting,” she wrote in a Twitter post.
Londoño reported from Washington. Tim Craig in Afghanistan contributed to this report.