U.S. and Afghanistan Agree on Prisoner Transfer as Part of Long-Term Agreementhttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/10/world/asia/us-and-afghanistan-agree-on-detainee-transfer.html?ref=world
KABUL, Afghanistan — Seeking to break an impasse on a broader strategic arrangement, the United States agreed Friday to greatly accelerate its transfer of imprisoned insurgents to Afghan government control, but will retain a veto over which ones can be released, American officials said.
Gen. John R. Allen, the American military commander, and Abdul Rahim Wardak, the Afghan defense minister, signed the compromise agreement in what diplomats described as a breakthrough in negotiations over a long-term military partnership.
The memorandum of understanding officially hands over nominal control of detainees to an Afghan official immediately, but allows for a six-month period of transition to full Afghan control of the detainees, American officials said.
For now, American officials will maintain day-to-day custody of the 3,200 detainees, most of them suspected of being Taliban insurgents, although the detention facility in Parwan where they are held would be managed by an Afghan officer. “The Afghan authorities will have no command of American military forces,” said an American diplomat involved in the negotiations.
During the transition, custody of the American-held prisoners would gradually be shifted to Afghan authority, with the first 500 prisoners to be transferred within 45 days, according to American military and diplomatic officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.
The move to speed up the transfer is a major concession to the Afghans, but the veto power, which would last as long as American troops are in Afghanistan, addresses American worries that Taliban fighters would be released prematurely and return to the battlefield. In order for a detainee to be released, both General Allen and Mr. Wardak would have to agree, American officials said.
They said the United States would also continue to monitor treatment of the prisoners in an attempt to prevent human rights abuses prevalent in many Afghan prisons.
The compromise was part of an effort to win support for a strategic partnership agreement that would provide for continued American military support even after the end of the NATO mission in 2014. The agreement is considered crucial because the Americans hope to ensure that the Afghan government can hold out against the Taliban and that Al Qaeda cannot re-establish a stronghold.
The American ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, suggested that both sides had compromised to reach the deal. “A good agreement represents a balance of concessions on both sides,” he said after the formal signing by General Allen and Mr. Wardak. “I won’t say they were the side that gave up the most, but the side that lost the most was the Taliban.”
The Afghan authorities had demanded immediate, complete control over all detainees, but Mr. Wardak called the agreement “a great achievement” on Friday.
The United States will retain custody of non-Afghan prisoners, about 50 people accused of being Qaeda militants from Pakistan, Arab countries and Central Asia, the American officials said. An American military official declined to comment on whether those prisoners had been captured on the Afghan battlefield or elsewhere.
The detention issue had been one of two major sticking points in negotiations for the partnership agreement, with President Hamid Karzai insisting on immediate Afghan control of the detainees and American officials favoring a gradual transition until 2014.
“We’ve made a lot of progress but stayed within our red lines and satisfied President Karzai’s concerns,” a senior American official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Mr. Karzai had set Friday as the final deadline for taking control of the detainees from American authorities.
The second point of dispute — ending night raids by American Special Forces — is still under discussion, but officials were hopeful of finding a compromise on that issue in the next week.
“In the coming few days, we will continue our negotiations,” Mr. Wardak said, “and will discuss and finalize a new document which is the Afghanization of Special Operations.” He added, “By signing the Special Operations document and this memorandum, the conditions of the government of Afghanistan will be fulfilled to pave the way for signing the strategic partnership document with the United States of America.”
Americans insist that night raids are the cornerstone of their Afghan military strategy because they have helped the military to capture and kill thousands of Taliban fighters and commanders.
American-held detainees are kept at a newly built, high-tech detention center in Parwan, adjoining the sprawling American military base at Bagram. Korans were burned at the facility in an episode that inspired Afghan anger last month, ignited disturbances that cost at least 29 lives and led to a breakdown in talks between the United States and Afghanistan on the proposed strategic partnership agreement. American officials have characterized the burning as inadvertent and have apologized.
One clause of the agreement calls for the Americans to build “sustainable” housing units for detainees to be put in after they are transferred to Afghan control, and out of the Parwan facility. American officials were concerned that the facility would be too expensive for Afghan authorities to continue to operate it.
Politicians in Washington had been highly critical of what they described as Afghan intransigence over the detention issue, with two prominent Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, criticizing Mr. Karzai during a recent visit to Kabul, the Afghan capital.
“It is safe to say that a lot of people, in and out of government, have been sending messages to the Afghan government about the importance of coming to a conclusion in this,” the senior American official said.