Date: May 08 2012
KABUL: For several years the United States has been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups. It is a bold effort to quell violence but one that US officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.
The disclosure comes as the House and Senate intelligence committee leaders declared that the Taliban had grown stronger since President Barack Obama's deployment of 33,000 more troops to Afghanistan in 2010.
As the US has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the ''strategic release'' program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.
The releases are an inherent gamble: the freed detainees are often notorious fighters who would not be released under the traditional legal system for military prisoners in Afghanistan. They must promise to give up violence, and American officials warn them that if they are caught attacking US troops, they will be detained again. There are no guarantees, however, and officials would not say if those who have been released under the program have returned to attack US and Afghan forces.
''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 US official who, like others, discussed the issue on the condition of anonymity.
The releases have come amid broader efforts to end the decade-long war through negotiation, which is a central feature of the Obama administration's strategy for leaving Afghanistan. Those efforts, however, have yielded little to no progress in recent years. In part, they have been stymied by the unwillingness of the US to release five prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, a gesture that insurgent leaders have said they see as a precondition for peace talks.
Unlike at Guantanamo, releasing prisoners from the Parwan detention centre, the only US military prison in Afghanistan, does not require congressional approval and can be done clandestinely. And although official negotiations with top insurgent leaders are seen by many as an endgame for the war, the strategic release program has a less ambitious goal: to quell violence in concentrated areas where NATO is unable to ensure security, particularly as troops continue to withdraw.
The program has existed for several years, but officials would not confirm exactly when it was established.
Meanwhile, a pessimistic report on Afghanistan by the Democrat senator Dianne Feinstein, and the Republican congressman Mike Rogers, challenges Mr Obama's assessment last week in a visit to Kabul that the ''tide had turned'' and ''we broke the Taliban's momentum''.
The politicians, who recently returned from Afghanistan, where they met President Hamid Karzai, told CNN they were not so sure.
''President Karzai believes that the Taliban will not come back. I'm not so sure,'' Senator Feinstein said. ''The Taliban has a shadow system of governors in many provinces.''
The Washington Post, Associated Press
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