BAGRAM, Afghanistan—The U.S. handed over control of the prison at Bagram air base to the Afghan government Monday, resolving a major sticking point that had been complicating relations between Washington and Kabul as both countries brace for the departure of most U.S. troops by the end of 2014.
Assuming control of the detention facility at the U.S.-run air base had been a key demand of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who in recent weeks has stepped up his anti-American rhetoric and ratcheted up tension between Kabul and Washington. Earlier this month while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was visiting Kabul, Karzai accused the U.S. of colluding with the Afghan Taliban so that both the U.S. and the insurgents could maintain a presence in Afghanistan, a remark that infuriated officials in Washington.
At a ceremony at the air base, located in Parwan province just north of Kabul, U.S. and Afghan officials pointed to the transfer of the detention facility to Afghan control as a vital step in the gradual handover of security responsibility from the U.S. to the Afghan government.
“Today represents the increase in sovereignty of the Afghan people,” said Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the top American commander in Afghanistan. “It’s significant because it is part of the broader political and security transition process.”
The prison at Bagram was the largest U.S.-run detention facility in Afghanistan. It was built in 2009, though U.S. troops have held detainees at Bagram air field as far back as 2002 at a makeshift lockup. It was also the site of one of the lowest points in relations between Afghanistan and the U.S. — the burning of copies of the Koran by U.S. troops last year, which triggered several days of deadly riots.
A year ago, Afghan and U.S. officials had agreed in principle to the Bagram detention facility handover, but both sides were unable to resolve concerns in Washington that the Afghan government would release suspected members of the Taliban or other insurgent groups.
U.N. officials had also expressed concern that ceding control of the detention facility to the Afghan government could subject detainees to abuse. U.S. and Afghan officials appeared ready to announce the transfer two weeks ago, but the ceremony was abruptly canceled after negotiations broke down.
Officials attending Monday’s ceremony declined to spell out how the stumbling blocks in negotiations were resolved. However, speaking after the ceremony, Dunford said that the U.S. had received a commitment from Karzai “to keeping behind bars those people who are a threat to the people of Afghanistan and to coalition forces.”
A statement issued by the U.S. military said the agreement signed Monday by Dunford and Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi “affirms their mutual commitment to the lawful and humane treatment of detainees.”
Afghan Gen. Ghulam Farooq Barakzai, commander of Afghan security forces that now oversee the Bagram prison, would not explain how Afghan officials allayed U.S. fears about the release of dangerous detainees. “I ask the U.S. not to worry about that issue," he said. "No one wants to release dangerous criminals that the government regards as its enemies, and we won’t do that — release our enemies.”
The prison, now known as the Afghan National Detention Facility at Parwan, houses about 3,000 detainees. Afghan officials said U.S. troops would still be able to initially detain suspects they pick up but have to turn them over to Afghan authorities within 96 hours, according to the agreement signed at Monday’s ceremony.