The United States today handed over the once notorious prison at Bagram air base in Afghanistan to full Afghan control in a symbolic recognition of national sovereignty long demanded by Hamid Karzai, the country’s president.
The move came hours before US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kabul for a previously unannounced visit, clearly designed to smooth over the latest tensions with the prickly Mr Karzai. The Afghanistan President had enraged Washington earlier this month by suggesting that the US was colluding with the Taliban to prolong the conflict and thus gain a pretext for maintaining its military presence in the country.
After talks with the Afghan leader, Mr Kerry told reporters the two were “on the same page” over the issue, and that Mr Karzai accepted that the only US interest was for the Taliban to enter peace negotiations.
“I don’t think there’s any disagreement between us,” he said. As for the transfer of the prison – now rebuilt at a new site next to the air base and renamed the Afghan National Detention Facility at Parwan – Mr Karzai said it was “a very good day” for Afghanistan.
Last March the US agreed to hand over responsibility for the majority of the detainees, and actually held a transfer ceremony six months later. But the complete transfer was delayed by a dispute over the possible release of inmates whom the US considered a security threat.
According to Afghan officials, the US had already handed over 4,000 prisoners, of whom 1,350 have been released. Today a further 26 were transferred, and others are expected to follow soon. Under the final deal, some 50 prisoners will remain in American hands, while fighters captured in the future by US forces must be turned over to the Afghan authorities within 96 hours.
The transfer is part of the broader security and political handover from Nato forces to the Afghans now underway, with all US combat troops scheduled to be withdrawn by the end of 2014. “This ceremony highlights an increasingly confident, capable and sovereign Afghanistan,” Marine General Joseph, the top US commander in Afghanistan, said.
Bagram was the largest American detention facility in Afghanistan and over the years was at the centre of repeated controversies over alleged prisoner abuse. It also saw one of the low points in relations between Washington and Kabul when US troops burnt copies of the Koran last year, sparking days of rioting.
Some United Nations officials have warned that the Afghan government might itself abuse prisoners after it took over the facility.