Hoping to build trust between fractious tribes and boosting peace negotiations with the Taliban, the United States has released as many as 20 high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan in exchange for promises they will not rejoin the insurgency, officials confirmed on Monday.
The U.S. program to release detainees in return for pledges of peace had not been previously disclosed, but officials stressed on Monday that these cases are "extremely rare and are an exception." The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said few than 20 detainees have been released under the program, which was launched in 2010.
The Washington Post, which first broke the news of the secret program, quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying the prisoners can be used as 'bargaining chips' in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits. But the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) denied this.
"Detainees are not used as bargaining chips in restive provinces, but are considered when the release of a detainee enables better governance, elevates the capacity of [the Afghan government] and can contribute to building trust between fractious tribes," said Lt. Col. Jimmie E. Cummings, Jr., an ISAF spokesman.
Cummings said the process has specific criteria and includes a thorough review that allows military commanders to weigh risks associated with the release. "The value of any release must be balanced against increased risk to Afghan civilians, [the Afghan government] and international forces," he said. "The decision to release must also take into account the impact on rule-of-law objectives and confidence in [the Afghan government] and must not reinforce a perceived culture of impunity."
Speaking to the Washington Post, the unnamed U.S. officials said there are no absolute guarantees the detainees keep their promise and it is unclear if any of them have later returned to attack Afghan or coalition forces. "We look at detainees who have influence over other insurgents - individuals whose release could have a calming effect in an entire area," one U.S. official told the newspaper.