The Afghan government has moved to release 80 percent of the high-security detainees who were handed over this year by the U.S. military and evaluated by an Afghan review panel, according to a Defense Department report released Friday.
Many of the recommendations for release have been opposed by the U.S. military on the grounds that the detainees, some of whom were apprehended in dangerous raids of insurgent redoubts, pose an ongoing risk to Afghan security forces and government officials. U.S. officials had hoped the Afghan review board would endorse continued incarceration, but it has decided instead to free most of the detainees whose cases it has examined on the grounds that insufficient evidence was collected to prosecute them in court.
The U.S. military task force handling detention matters “disagrees with some of the ARB’s decisions,” the department wrote, using an acronym for the board, but the U.S. government has continued to support the board “as part of the transition of Afghan sovereignty.”
The U.S. military transferred authority for operating a high-security, American-built prison near Kabul to the Afghan government this year. The handover included 880 Afghan detainees accused of conducting insurgent attacks and other serious crimes.
The review panel has examined 461 detainees and recommended prosecution in 77 cases, according to the report. The other detainees were recommended for release.
A key problem, U.S. officials said, is the Afghan parliament’s unwillingness to pass legislation that would permit the government to detain individuals even if insufficient evidence exists to prosecute them in court. Most of the detainees were apprehended in military operations where the collection of evidence was not a priority; in other cases, information leading to their capture came from sources the U.S. government deems too secret to share with the Afghan government.
“This is very disappointing,” said a U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss detention operations. “But it’s a risk we recognized when we handed these guys over. We couldn’t hold onto them forever.”
Detentions have been a long-festering source of tension in President Hamid Karzai’s relationship with the United States. He and his advisers have maintained that U.S. and NATO forces have swept up many innocent Afghans in their raids.
U.S. military officials have sought to persuade the board to reconsider some of its recommendations.
The report, a semiannual Pentagon assessment of the war provided to Congress, also noted that the U.S. military now has fewer than 40,000 troops in Afghanistan. The military has shuttered 290 of 349 bases in the country and reduced its stockpiles of materiel by about 45 percent, the report said.
Afghan security forces now conduct 95 percent of all conventional military operations in the country. The U.S. drawdown and the growth of the Afghan army has been reflected in combat injuries and deaths: Afghan casualties have increased by 79 percent over the past six months, while U.S. casualties have fallen by 59 percent, according to the report.
The increase in Afghan casualties has helped to fuel a significant increase in the number of people leaving the Afghan security forces. One in three soldiers has quit or deserted over the past 12 months, the Pentagon found.
The high rate of casualties “and their limited ability to evacuate their wounded adversely affects morale, retention and recruiting,” the report said.
The report warned that Afghan security forces “are not yet fully self-sustainable, and considerable effort will be required to make progress permanent.” Even so, the Pentagon said, “the biggest uncertainties facing Afghanistan are no longer primarily military.” It cited questions about a U.S. military presence after the end of next year, presidential elections scheduled for the spring and the challenge of developing the nation’s anemic economy.