KABUL — Afghanistan's controversial new commission formed to release suspected Taliban prisoners has set free 14 detainees, primarily from U.S. custody, and more than two dozen more releases are imminent, Afghan officials told McClatchy on Sunday.
In a major concession to entice the Taliban into talks, President Hamid Karzai announced the amnesty for detained insurgents at the peace "jirga" — a traditional gathering of tribal leaders — held in Kabul this month.
Karzai is pushing a policy of "reconciliation" with the Taliban, having apparently given up on defeating them militarily. Freeing Taliban prisoners is a key plank of his policy to induce the insurgents to come to a political settlement, which would see them gain a share of power.
But there is deep unease inside and outside Afghanistan at the speed of the reconciliation drive, and at the sense that prisoners taken with hard work and risk by Afghan and international forces would be set free for political reasons. The announcement of the releases was reportedly instrumental in the subsequent resignation of Afghanistan's intelligence chief.
The five-member committee formed to decide on the releases has no representation from the intelligence service or any other security agency. Thousands could be freed under the deal, with the warden of notorious Pul-e-Charki prison, on the outskirts of Kabul, saying 1,000 Taliban could now be freed from his jail alone.
McClatchy has discovered that the committee played a key role in setting free prisoners already, and it is apparently getting co-operation from the U.S. military in Afghanistan. The committee is now poring over lists of more detainees.
Last week, the five-member committee pushed through the release of 12 prisoners from the U.S.-run prison at the Bagram air base on the outskirts of Kabul, and another two teenage detainees on Saturday, who had been held by Afghanistan's interior ministry, said committee member Nasrullah Stanikzai, a professor on the law faculty at Kabul University. The boys were 16 and 17, picked up from Dakhar and Khost provinces by police as suspected insurgents, and held by the counterterrorism unit of the Ministry of Interior in Kabul.
"They are children," said Stanikzai, referring to the teenage detainees, whom the committee interviewed. "They were reported to have a relationship with the Taliban, but they told us they were madrassa (Islamic school) students. The father and uncle of the boys were there in tears."
The committee is now looking at the cases of 25 prisoners held at Bagram and 16 more held by Afghan forces, Stanikzai said. He said the committee would examine only the cases of those alleged insurgents in a state of legal limbo, in custody but without sufficient evidence for a criminal conviction. He insisted that the committee was working to free "civilians," adding work on Taliban prisoners would come only later, after "political progress."
There are concerns, however, that the work of the committee will be opaque and expanding. All members of the committee are Karzai appointees, headed by the justice minister. "There is in particular a suspicion that the committee may be saying it is doing one thing, while in practice becoming a cover for much more far-reaching and unchecked releases," said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization. "There is a sense that Karzai is acting as if there is a fresh start and as if everything has already been forgiven — without there having been any real negotiations or concessions."