President Obama’s second inaugural address was a broad declaration of his liberal bona fides but only once, and briefly, did it mention resolving the conflict in Afghanistan. “A decade of war is now ending,” he claimed, but the reality on the ground belies his optimism. The recent handling of detainees portends not only a turbulent path to peace in the region, but a violent transitionary period that could undo hard-won progress and seriously damage important relationships.
For years, the US has been quietly undertaking a programme releasing detainees from Bagram prison in Parwan province. The programme is fraught with risk and has put undue strain on coalition forces. Detainees have been periodically transported to Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan’s British zone, and are allowed to leave with little to no processing. UK troops have coined it the American “catch and release programme”, and it is said to have created a revolving door for insurgents to return to the battlefield. According to one US military police officer, British soldiers resent their well-equipped cousins for unloading the enemy on their turf and expecting them to deal with the mess.
The release of detainees was hoped to inspire concessions from the Taliban. US military officials have worried about the precariousness of this strategy, which requires releasing notorious fighters that they say are undoubtedly guilty of working with terrorist organisations. For their freedom, the released prisoners must promise to give up fighting, but are not made to renounce their connections to the Taliban or other insurgent groups. The initiative has failed to produce any real diplomatic breakthroughs. Hundreds of detainees have been released, but the handful of prisoners kept at Guantánamo Bay has continued to preclude rapprochement between the US and the Taliban.
Despite its setbacks, this accelerated plan of releasing Afghanistan’s most wanted has been adopted by President Hamid Karzai. Last November, he ordered a full takeover of the detention facility in Bagram after the original handover deadline elapsed, only narrowly avoiding a confrontation with the US military. These disputes are reminders that the era of US custodianship in the country will soon expire, and call into question what its lasting influence will be.
In January, the Afghan government announced that more than 1,000 prisoners were to be released and has urged similar action in Pakistan. Consequently, a new “safe passage” agreement between Kabul and Islamabad has reportedly eliminated any preconditions to prisoners’ release and with it both the carrot and stick to potential agreement between the West, regional governments and insurgency groups.
If Afghanistan is to reclaim its full sovereignty, it should have the power to hold its own criminals and administer its own justice, but the current approach does not allow it to do either. Releasing serial offenders back into the fray means further instability and, lacking a US presence, possible civil war between warring factions and the Karzai government. A decade of war may be ending, but the present course of action will not keep the peace for very long.