KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai has often pushed his relationship with Washington to the breaking point — and, more often than not, Washington has capitulated.
Now by moving ahead with his plan to release dozens of prisoners accused of killing coalition and Afghan troops, Karzai is doubling down on a combative assertion of Afghan sovereignty. Analysts see the move as a way to stay relevant in the waning days of his presidency and as leverage in negotiations over keeping an international presence in the country.
Karzai insisted earlier this month that the prisoner releases would proceed, despite strenuous objections by the United States, further straining relations between Washington and Kabul.
At this point, it is unclear when — or even if — the release will take place. Afghan officials say they have not set a date.
Karzai has constantly challenged the U.S. and usually found that Washington will bend first. This happened most recently when he defied a deadline to sign an agreement to keep international troops in Afghanistan past Dec. 31. The Obama administration blinked and extended the deadline.
“The Kabul government is using this case as a means to show that the United States is not leaving behind a puppet regime,” said Kamran Bokhari, an analyst at the geopolitical intelligence firm STRATFOR.
The Afghan government needs public support when it deals with political issues, he said.
The latest dispute repeats a familiar pattern in U.S. relations with Karzai: alternating threats, cajolery and broken promises. Kabul and Washington continue to wrangle over the security agreement crucial to a U.S. plan to keep a small number of troops in the country beyond 2014 to conduct training, assistance and counterterrorism missions.
Those negotiations have stalled over Karzai’s insistence that the agreement be signed after he leaves office following elections in April, a schedule the U.S. says will not provide adequate time to plan for troop deployments. Without the agreement, international military forces will almost certainly leave the country by Dec. 31.
The prison where the alleged insurgents are being held, known as the Afghan National Detention Facility, is at Bagram Air Field, a major logistical hub for coalition forces. Administered by the U.S. military until March as Parwan Prison, it was turned over to Afghan control after Karzai complained that continued American control of the prison violated Afghan sovereignty.
In return, Karzai agreed not to release certain detainees before they were prosecuted in Afghan courts. U.S. officials say the current release plan violates this agreement.
The alleged insurgents, who were detained by U.S. and coalition forces, are accused of attacks against civilians as well as coalition and Afghan troops.
While the fate of the prisoners was supposed to have been in the hands of the Afghan Review Board — a three-person panel of two prosecutors and a retired judge — Karzai has been involved in the process, presiding over meetings concerning the prisoners, according to government officials.
Pushing back against the planned release, last week the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force provided Stars and Stripes with details on four of the prisoners set to be released, including one accused of carrying out the bombing of a school that killed a student. ISAF officials say they have provided the Afghan government with proof of the detainees’ involvement in attacks, including forensic and fingerprint evidence against some.
Nevertheless, the Afghan Review Board decided this evidence was not sufficient to continue holding most of the prisoners.
The standoff may be attributed partly to the bumpy transition from a wartime detention regime, which included indefinite imprisonment for suspected insurgents, to civilian rules, which demand that evidence be presented in a timely manner for trial, said Kate Clark, an analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul.
Some of the guilty will inevitably go free in any civilian system where prosecutors bear the burden of proof, Clark said, but Karzai’s involvement in a process ostensibly independent of the executive branch could muddy the waters.
“I think it opens him up for accusations that he’s politicizing the issue,” she said.
In response to questions from Stripes, Karzai spokesman Fayeq Wahidi said in an email that the decision to release the prisoners was purely a legal one and that there is no danger that the accused could return to the battlefield, a key concern of U.S. officials.
“If the judicial authorities and security bodies have found out that these people are innocent and there is no evidence against them ... (and they) never came from insurgency, why should there be any concern that they return to insurgency?” he said.
Wahedi blamed the U.S. for not providing enough evidence against the prisoners.
“Had the US provided enough evidence to prove these people in detention are criminal, we would not have needed to conduct a three-week investigation of our own to determine the fate of the prisoners,” he said.
U.S. military officials, who have gone on record in the past in opposing the release, declined to comment for this story.
Another factor in the Afghan authorities’ approach to the case may be genuinely different perceptions of what constitutes sufficient evidence of culpability or guilt.
The scientific evidence that has become the backbone of so many cases in Western countries is relatively new and little understood in Afghanistan, where confessions are prized — and often coerced, according to human rights organizations.
So when the U.S. comes forward with what they see as damning DNA and fingerprint analysis, it doesn’t always play well in the Afghan judicial system, Clark said.
“Afghan judges don’t really like the forensic evidence — the traces of explosives and fingerprints. They’re much happier with confessions,” she said.
Some analysts in Afghanistan see a calculation by Karzai that standing up once again to Washington will bolster his image.
“President Hamid Karzai wants to raise this issue now for political goals and, especially when the (bilateral security agreement with the U.S.) is under discussion, the president wants to show his opponents that he is able to make independent decisions,” said Noorulhaq Olumi, a military analyst and former Afghan army general.
Public opposition to the release, by U.S. officials and politicians, might have been counterproductive, Clark said. In a visit to Kabul earlier this month, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-SC, decried the plan.
Clark said the American reaction, while understandable given the serious accusations against the prisoners, served to bolster Karzai’s claim that this is an issue of Afghan sovereignty.
“In some ways, the American involvement in this has been unhelpful, particularly the senators coming in,” Clark said. “This should be an Afghan issue because the Americans are leaving.”
The releases could be a gamble to try to restart peace talks with the Taliban, said Michael Keating, a former U.N. deputy envoy to Afghanistan and a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House in London. Though they have gone nowhere, those talks are seen as key to ending the war.
“On a broader basis, it may be that his calculation that releasing them will be seen as a good gesture,” Keating said. “I think (Karzai) may be wrong in that regard, in that I’m not sure the Taliban leadership’s willingness to restart or even initiate peace discussions anytime soon is around the corner. I suspect they will be waiting until he goes, and they see how the withdrawal of U.S. and other Western troops plays out.”
Some members of the Afghan security forces have joined U.S. officials in opposing the release, angered over the killing of their own troops, who have borne the brunt of the war over the past two years. Their casualty rates are far above those ever experienced by coalition forces.
“Releasing prisoners in such a way hurts the morale of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) and improves the morale of insurgents,” said Olumi, the former Afghan army general.
Alex Pena and Cid Standifer contributed to this report from Germany; Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report from Kabul.