America has secretly been releasing high-level Taliban prisoners from a top security military prison as part of negotiations with insurgents. Up to 20 prisoners have been released from Bagram prison in the past two years after giving assurances they would give up their struggle and reconcile with the government, The Telegraph reported.
The clandestine “strategic release” programme at the prison north of Kabul has allowed America to use prisoners as bargaining chips when trying to reach local deals with insurgents.
Officials admitted the scheme was risky however and difficult to police. They would not say whether any of those released had resumed attacks on Nato or Afghan forces.
“Everyone agrees they are guilty of what they have done and should remain in detention,” one official told the Washington Post. “Everyone agrees that these are bad guys. But the benefits outweigh the risks.”
Gavin Sundwall, spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Kabul, said the programme was two years old and “rarely used”. Commanders from both the American and Afghan forces deliberated on releasing prisoners who were “willing to denounce violence and engage in the process of reconciliation”. He said: “Fewer than 20 detainees have ever been released under this program, and the decision to release a detainee takes into account whether they pose any further security threat.”
The release of prisoners has become a significant hurdle to embryonic peace contacts aimed at finding a political settlement to the conflict.
Contacts in Qatar appeared to founder earlier this year when Taliban negotiators pulled out saying America had broken a promise to transfer five leaders from Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, to looser custody in the Gulf state.
Releasing the men from Guantanamo requires congressional approval and is seen by analysts as a risky move for Barack Obama during a presidential election campaign.
However while Bagram prison is second only to Guantanamo for holding the most senior Taliban prisoners from the decade-long Nato-led campaign, their release does not need approval from Congress, the Washington Post reported.
The United States agreed to hand over control of Bagram prison to the Afghan army earlier this year, during negotiations over a 10-year strategic deal governing American aid to the country after 2014.
Senior prisoners have in the past been transferred to Afghan custody only to be then released under murky circumstances and Western officials have said Afghan custody is a “revolving door” for any insurgent with money or political links.
In the most notorious example, Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir, was released into Afghan custody from Guantanamo in 2007 only to be freed to rejoin his Taliban comrades and rise quickly through the ranks to a senior leadership post.