Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his powerful brother are among a number of senior Afghan figures to be accused of ordering the release of high-ranking Taliban fighters so often that the insurgents now run a commission to secure their freedom.
According to Reuters news agency, the practice is so widespread as to counteract the deterrent effect of capture, and pits Mr Karzai and his coterie directly at odds with the Nato strategy in Afghanistan.
Even though Mr Karzai and his Western allies espouse a political solution to the war in Afghanistan, analysts say that releasing prisoners in such large numbers actually reduces the chances of a settlement.
Michael Semple, a Harvard University fellow with more than 20 years' experience in Afghanistan and extensive contacts with the Taliban, said that the Taliban prisoners' commission has "a sufficiently high success rate to boost Taliban fighters' confidence. The threat of arrest has lost its deterrent value as they are confident of being sprung." Some of the releases are said to be carried out in exchange for payment.
In one particularly damning example, Mr Karzai is reported to have intervened on behalf of a Taliban commander from north-western Afghanistan called Dastigir after village elders swore he would renounce violence. Dastigir promptly returned to the battlefield, united feuding Taliban factions, and was responsible for attacks that led to the deaths of at least 32 policemen. Dastigir was killed in 2009.
The Afghan government has denied releasing Taliban prisoners. "We have no evidence and no examples that detained Taliban were released by government officials," Zemarai Bashary, a spokesman for the interior ministry, which controls the police, said.
Yet diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks show that staff at the US embassy in Kabul have been concerned about prisoner releases for more than a year.
"Both [Mr Karzai and his Attorney General] authorise the release of detainees pre-trial and allow dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court," a cable dated August 2009 said. The cable listed 150 pre-trial releases from one Afghan detention facility since 2007, including 27 prisoners who had been held at Guantanamo Bay. It reported that Mr Karzai had pardoned five border policemen caught with 124 kilograms of heroin after they had been sentenced to terms of 16 to 18 years in prison. He intervened "on the grounds that they were distantly related to two individuals who had been martyred during the civil war," the cable noted.
Mr Karzai also interfered in a narcotics case, ordering a fresh investigation of a suspect who happened to be the son of a wealthy businessman and Karzai supporter. The second investigation, which the cable described as unconstitutional, found the suspect had been framed.
A presidential spokesman said this week that there was nothing new in the leaked cables. While the President has a constitutional right to pardon criminals, he often does not announce the pardons, leading legal experts to worry about a lack of transparency.
Some of the most startling cases of prisoner release involve the president's half-brother, the chairman of Kandahar's provincial council and one of southern Afghanistan's most powerful figures. Ahmed Wali Karzai's business dealings have repeatedly sucked him into controversy. Leaked US diplomatic cables characterise him as a corrupt drugs baron, and he also reportedly has extensive dealings with the CIA.
Now he stands accused of soliciting the release of one of the most wanted Taliban commanders operating in Kandahar city, Ghulam Haidar, and paying tens of thousands of dollars to secure the freedom of another, Anwar Shah Agha. Mr Agha spent 10 months in jail before going free in May, and rejoining the fight against Nato and the Afghan forces to the west of Kandahar city – one of the country's fiercest battlefields.
Ahmed Wali Karzai rejected the allegations out of hand. "I am the person most wanted by the Taliban, with nine suicide attacks against me," he said. "I would be the last person to release the Taliban – my position is for more tough measures against them."
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