KABUL — Afghanistan's controversial new commission formed to release suspected Taliban prisoners has set free 14 detainees already, primarily from U.S. custody, and over 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 at the start of 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.
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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 Afghanistan's notorious Pul-e-Charki prison, on the outskirts of Kabul, saying that 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 that it is apparently getting co-operation from the U.S. military in Afghanistan. The committee is now pouring over lists of more detainees.
Over the 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 aged 16 and 17, picked up from Dakhar and Khost provinces by police as suspected insurgents, and held by the counter-terrorism 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 that work on Taliban prisoners would come only later, after "political progress".
Another member of the committee, Sheikh Muhammad Aref Ghoriani, who serves at the Independent Peace and Reconciliation Commission, an official body that predates the new drive to cut a deal with the insurgents, said: "The charges against them (those freed) were that they are Taliban. Some were also arrested because of some misunderstanding. There was no proof against them."
"With their release, the families will be happy and they will come closer to the government."
However, there are concerns 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."
The official mandate of the committee doesn't appear to cover proven Taliban fighters. According to Karzai's presidential decree, it "shall be established to review and look into the cases of persons in custody for connections with the armed opposition, without sufficient legally binding criminal evidence."
Robert Everdeen, a spokesman for the U.S. prison at the Bagram air base, now known as the detention facility at Parwan, said that "we have freed 12 detainees within the last week," but he was unable to confirm the role of the committee in the releases. He added that 20 more detainees were expected to be freed "in the near future."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed reporting.)
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