Afghanistan released 65 men accused of killing civilians and soldiers, ignoring American pleas to keep them locked up in the latest sign of worsening ties between the nations after 13 years of war.
Evidence against the men freed was never seriously considered by Afghan authorities, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said in a statement. The U.S. military said some of the men released from a former American-run prison north of the capital were Taliban members who pose a threat to civilians.
“The Afghan government bears responsibility for the results of its decision,” the embassy said in a statement today. “We urge it to make every effort to ensure that those released do not commit new acts of violence and terror.”
The releases add to tension between the Obama administration and Afghan President President Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign a bilateral security accord and denounced the U.S.’s role in his country as an election to pick his successor approaches.
Karzai said today during a visit to Ankara, Turkey, that the U.S.-run prison had violated Afghanistan’s sovereignty and that the U.S. should stop harassing his country’s judiciary, which ordered the releases.
At stake is whether any U.S. and allied troops will remain in the country after most withdraw this year and whether Afghanistan will continue to receive billions of dollars in funds used to pay government salaries and fight militants seeking to upend the country’s democracy.
In response to the planned release, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who backs a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan, called this week for halting development aid until after the election scheduled for April as a way to express displeasure with Karzai for refusing to heed American protests over freeing the inmates.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel shares the concerns expressed by Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, about the release of “these dangerous individuals,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said today in an e-mailed statement.
“We believe some of these released individuals have already returned to the fight,” Marie Harf, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, told reporters on a conference call. “We do have a legitimate concern for the lives of coalition forces, Afghan forces, and the lives of civilians,” she said.
The men were released because the evidence didn’t show they had committed criminal acts, Abdul Shokur Dadras, a member of a Karzai-appointed committee investigating the cases, said by phone. Many of the men were captured by coalition intelligence officers without any evidence and are now free to return to their families, he said.
“We acted based on our law,” Dadras said. “The attorney general called them innocent after they and we found nothing to prove their insurgent activities.”
One of the men released, Mohammad Wali, is a Taliban explosives expert who was biometrically linked to two bombs that targeted Afghan and U.S.-led coalition soldiers, according to a U.S. military statement this week that called the prisoners dangerous. Nek Mohammad is accused of facilitating rocket attacks against Afghan and coalition soldiers, it said.
President Barack Obama pledged to remove U.S. combat forces -- at 34,000 as of Feb. 1 -- from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. He left open the possibility of keeping a smaller force to train the Afghan military and mount counterterrorism operations.
The security pact with the U.S. that Karzai has refused so far to sign would give any remaining U.S. troops immunity from prosecution under local laws. It was unanimously approved last year by a council of tribal elders Karzai convened. Obama pulled U.S. troops from Iraq when it failed to approve a similar pact.