Karzai Delays Afghan Prisoner Release After U.S. Protests

Afghan President Hamid Karzai delayed releasing 88 prisoners after U.S. lawmakers and military officials protested that the detainees were being let go without investigation.

The 88 inmates at the Parwan Detention Facility next to the Bagram air base are facing charges of killing American and Afghan soldiers. The case against them will be reassessed, Abdul Shokur Dadras, a member of the Afghan Review Board, said yesterday in a phone interview.

Plans to set free the prisoners became the latest incident inflaming U.S.-Afghan relations already strained by Karzai’s delay in signing a bilateral security agreement. The Obama administration says the deal must be completed quickly if the U.S. is to keep any forces in the country after most combat troops pull out by the end of this year.

After pressure from the U.S., Karzai ordered the review board to reassess the prisoners’ cases, Dadras said, declining to say how long the reassessment might take. The inmates were being held based on their confessions, and there was insufficient evidence against them, he said.

The U.S. turned over the Parwan prison to Afghanistan in March. Karzai began releasing prisoners from the facility starting in August based on the review board’s findings, and about 560 already have been freed, a U.S. military official said in an e-mail. The U.S. objected to the 88 who were facing imminent release, said the official, who asked not to be identified because of delicate negotiations between the two countries.

Agreement Delay

Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were the latest Americans to urge Karzai not to release the prisoners and to conclude the bilateral agreement soon. Karzai has said he may wait to sign it until after elections scheduled for April to choose his successor as president.

“We emphasized to President Karzai that timing is important,” McCain told reporters in Jerusalem, where he traveled after Kabul. “The president of the United States is going to talk to the American people at the end of January; there is going to be a NATO ministers meeting;” and therefore it’s “just not realistic” for Karzai to delay the agreement.

Karzai backed off signing the agreement after a loya jirga, a meeting of 2,500 tribal elders that he convened, endorsed the security pact and urged him to accept it.

The delay prompted Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, to tell Karzai that without a “prompt signature, the U.S. would have no choice but to initiate planning” to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan.

Chaos in Iraq

A complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would risk plunging the landlocked country into violence similar to that now taking place in Iraq, where the U.S. withdrew its troops in 2011 after the Obama administration failed to get a similar security agreement, McCain said.

“I also pointed out” to Karzai “that we didn’t want Afghanistan to follow the path of Iraq, which is now descending into chaos, as we know, because of our failure to leave a residual force behind, which is the problem and a failure of the United States of America not Iraq,” McCain said.

An upsurge in violence in Iraq last year proved to be the bloodiest in terms of civilian casualties for five years. Worsening security in the country has been matched by instability across the region, as sectarian violence rises in Lebanon and Syria, where Sunni and Shiite forces are also battling.

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