U.S. ties with Karzai erode further over prisoner release


McClatchy Washington Bureau

Back in better days, Sen. Lindsey Graham traded jokes with Hamid Karzai during late-night dinners at the presidential palace in Kabul and worked with the Afghan leader’s top officials to set up courts, prisons and other law-enforcement pillars.

Now, with U.S. forces leaving Afghanistan and relations between the governments deteriorating, Graham is condemning Karzai for Thursday’s release of 65 Afghan prisoners and pushing Congress to suspend U.S. reconstruction aid.

“Karzai is doing a lot of damage to his country and to the relationship between us and Afghanistan,” Graham told McClatchy on Thursday. “He’s undercutting a relationship (with the United States) that most Afghans want and empowering the Taliban. The Taliban look at something like this (release), and they’ve got to be encouraged. I’ve been to that prison dozens of times, and it makes my blood boil to see these thugs walk out of there.”

The Taliban, Muslim extremists who want to reimpose rigid Islamic Shariah law, ruled Afghanistan until the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001 and are now leading the insurgency.

Graham, a South Carolina Republican who’s a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has made a dozen trips to Afghanistan as a senator and on active-duty stints as an Air Force Reserve military lawyer with the rank of colonel.

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commander of U.S troops in Afghanistan, has criticized the freeing of prisoners, saying they pose a direct threat to American, Afghan and allied forces in the war-torn country.

“They have killed Afghan men, women and children,” he said in a statement Thursday. “More than two dozen of the individuals released were linked to the production or emplacement of improvised explosive devices, the number one killer of Afghan citizens. We believe some of the individuals previously released have already returned to the fight. Additional released detainees may continue to fill the ranks of the insurgency.”

In Kabul, a Karzai spokesman said U.S. forces had held the freed prisoners without justification.

“Innocent Afghans who were in illegal detention of the U.S. in Bagram prison for years were released today,” the spokesman, Aimal Faizi, told The Guardian newspaper of London. “We welcome it.”

The rift over prisoners is the most recent in a series of conflicts between the governments.

U.S. leaders accuse Karzai of reneging on promises to sign a bilateral security accord that would govern Afghanistan’s treatment of a residual force of American troops. They’re expected to remain in the country after the scheduled withdrawal of the remaining 34,000 U.S. forces is complete by the end of the year. A new Afghan leader will replace Karzai after presidential elections in April.

Graham expressed confidence that bipartisan majorities in Congress will vote to withhold non-military aid to Afghanistan until Karzai’s successor is in place. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also condemned the freeing of the 65 inmates.

“After years of fighting alongside our Afghan partners – who have sustained serious casualties themselves from common enemies – this decision is especially egregious,” Boehner said in a statement.

The prisoners were released from Afghanistan’s national detention center in Parwan. That prison was largely built with U.S. funds and is still guarded by American troops. But control has shifted to the Karzai government under two U.S.-Afghan “memos of understanding” on the handling of detainees captured during the war.

Graham, who said he’d helped draft the two memos on detainees, described a confrontational meeting about the prisoners that he and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had had with Karzai in Kabul early last month, after Dunford appealed to them to try to change the Afghan leader’s mind about releasing the prisoners.

“It was pretty forceful,” Graham said of the meeting. “He started arguing with us and calling (the detention center) a black prison. I’ve known Karzai for 10 years, but he’s getting completely irrational. He’s totally detached from the reality about what’s going on in his own country.”

Graham said he couldn’t confirm reports that Karzai had engaged in secret talks with the Taliban, but the senator said such negotiations wouldn’t surprise him.

“He doesn’t treat the Taliban as an insurgency,” Graham said. “He calls them ‘wayward brothers,’ rather than thugs that are killing people.”

Graham said he’d reviewed the case files of the freed prisoners and concluded that they were dangerous. He said many were involved with attacks or in making roadside bombs that had killed dozens of U.S., Afghan and allied troops.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said “evidence against them was never seriously considered” and its requests for a thorough review of each case were ignored.

“The Afghan government bears responsibility for the results of its decision,” the embassy said in a statement. “We urge it to make every effort to ensure that those released do not commit new acts of violence and terror, and to immediately bring to justice any who do so.”

Graham introduced a resolution Thursday that says the freeing of prisoners violates a March 2013 memo of understanding between the United States and Afghanistan. The measure blames Karzai by name.

“Despite evidence to the contrary, President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai stated the prisoners set to be released are innocent and must be released,” the resolution says.

Over dinner at the presidential palace in December 2008, Karzai thanked Graham and McCain for helping to rebuild his country, according to a secret State Department cable that McClatchy and other news outlets obtained from WikiLeaks.

“Karzai then joked that ‘Reconstruction is something we complain about, but inside we are very happy with it,’ ” the cable reported on the dinner. “’We complain because we want more money from you.’”

Email: jrosen@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose

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