U.S. officials handed over formal control of Afghanistan’s only large-scale U.S.-run prison to Kabul on Monday, even as disagreements between the two countries over the Taliban and terror suspects held there marred the transfer.
The handover ceremony took place at the prison next to a sprawling U.S. airfield in Bagram, just north of Kabul. President Hamid Karzai has hailed the transfer as a victory for Afghan sovereignty.
Bagram, also known as the Parwan Detention Facility, has been the focus of controversy in the past but never had the notoriety of the prisons at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
Earlier this year, the image of the prison was tarnished when hundreds of Qurans and other religious materials were taken from its library and sent to a burn pit at the military base. The event triggered scores of deadly anti-American protests across Afghanistan and led to the deaths of six U.S. soldiers.
“We are telling the Afghan president and the Afghan people that today is a proud day,” said Afghan army Gen. Ghulam Farouk, who now heads the prison.
The U.S. had already given Afghanistan authority over most of the 3,000 detainees held at the prison before March 9, when the countries signed a handover agreement. As some may have been released or others brought in, the prison’s current detainee population under U.S. control is not known but is thought to number in the hundreds.
The U.S. recently suspended the transfer of new detainees apparently because of disagreements with Kabul, which has questioned the long-term detention of suspects without charge after their capture.
The U.S. reportedly fears that Afghan authorities may simply let some detainees go, and appears reluctant to turn over all the suspects it holds.
According to Farouk, the United States had transferred 3,082 detainees but was still in the process of transferring another 600 captured after the March agreement. The U.S. will also continue to hold about 50 non-Afghan prisoners that are not covered by the agreement on a small part of the facility that they will still administer. They are thought to include Pakistanis and other foreign nationals either captured in Afghanistan or transferred to Bagram from other wars, such as Iraq.
The disagreement is not expected to impact military operations around Afghanistan, but it is an indication of the tense relations between the U.S.-led NATO military coalition and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
It is also unlikely to impact the gradual handover of security responsibilities from NATO to Afghan forces. The United States and its allies are drawing down their military forces in Afghanistan and hope to fully hand over control to the Afghans by the end of 2014, when most foreign troops are to leave the country.
Acting Afghan Defense Minister Enayatullah Nazary said after a ceremony that “very few prisoners” remained with the United States military and the rest are under Afghan control.
He attributed the delay in handing over the rest to “technical issues.” Nazary would not elaborate.