For several years now the US government has secretly been releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups.
While the Obama administration has, unsuccessfully, been pursuing a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program serves as a means for officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips for pledges of peace.
U.S. officials warn the prisoners before they are released that if they are caught attacking American troops, they will be detained once again.
“Everyone agrees they are guilty of what they have done and should remain in detention. Everyone agrees that these are bad guys. But the benefits outweigh the risks,” said one U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Releasing prisoners from the Parwan detention center, the only American military prison in Afghanistan, does not require congressional approval like at Guantanamo.
U.S. officials would not say how many detainees have been released under the program, or exactly when it was established.
The process starts with talks between U.S. military officials and insurgent commanders or local elders. Promises of decreased violence are made if certain insurgents are released from Parwan. The value of the tradeoff and the sincerity of the guarantee is determined by senior military officials in Kabul, officials said.
“The Afghans have come to us with information that might strengthen the reconciliation process,” U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker said. “Many times we do act on it.”
The insurgents released through the secret program are the only detainees at Parwan who are able to circumvent the prison’s judicial review board. Their release is instead approved directly by the United States’ top commander and top military lawyer in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said. One official described the process as being “outside of our normal protocol.”
As opposed to the formal NATO-sponsored reintegration program, which forces militants to sever ties with the insurgency, the strategic release program does not require detainees to formally disavow their relationship to the Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami or other insurgent groups.