Afghan Prisoner Release Stirs U.S. Protest of Terror Risk

The U.S. protested Afghanistan’s release of 65 prisoners accused of killing civilians and soldiers, saying the move frees terrorists to attack again as strains deepened between the two countries.

“The Afghan government bears responsibility for the results of its decision,” the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said in a statement after the releases were announced yesterday. “We urge it to make every effort to ensure that those released do not commit new acts of violence and terror.”

The prisoner release after repeated U.S. objections fed tensions between the Obama administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign a bilateral security accord and denounced the U.S. role in his country after 13 years of war as an election approaches to pick his successor.

Karzai said yesterday during a visit to Ankara, Turkey, that the former U.S. prison where the men were held violated Afghanistan’s sovereignty and that the U.S. should stop harassing his country’s judiciary, which ordered the releases.

The men were freed 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. “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.”

Evidence against the prisoners was never seriously considered, according to the U.S. embassy’s statement. The U.S. has said some of the men released from the prison north of Kabul were Taliban members who pose a threat to civilians.

Flash Point

“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 yesterday. “We do have a legitimate concern for the lives of coalition forces, Afghan forces, and the lives of civilians,” she said.

The prisoner release may become a flash point as the U.S. and allies weigh whether any of their forces will remain in Afghanistan after most withdraw this year and whether the country will continue to receive billions of dollars in funds used to pay government salaries and fight militants seeking to upend the country’s democracy.

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who backs a continued American role in Afghanistan, called this week for halting development aid until after the April elections to express displeasure with Karzai for refusing to heed protests over freeing the inmates.

‘Destroying’ Relationship

“President Karzai, in my view, is singlehandedly destroying this relationship” through “his erratic behavior” and “outrageous statements,” Graham said at a Feb. 11 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

U.S. 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 yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

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. Another, Nek Mohammad, is accused of facilitating rocket attacks against Afghan and coalition forces, it said.

President Barack Obama pledged to remove U.S. combat forces -- there were 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 Afghan troops 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 in 2011 when it failed to approve a similar accord.