BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- The American military formally transferred all but "a small number" of the Afghan prisoners at the Bagram Prison to the Afghan government on Monday in a ceremony that almost, but not quite, marked the end of the American involvement in the long-term detention of insurgents here.
The transfer, in which the Americans were ceding control to the Afghan government over which Taliban will be released, was a choice of long-term influence in Afghanistan -- by trying to improve the chances of negotiating an American presence here after 2014 -- over holding firm in a thorny disagreement.
The Bagram commander, Gen. Ghulam Farouk Barakzai, said that the Americans had given the Afghans control of a total of 4,000 prisoners in the last year since the transfer began but that a small number still remained in American custody. He would not say how many or for how long they might be held by the Americans.
If recent history is any guide, the decisions the Afghans make on Taliban releases after taking control are not likely to reassure the American military.
Among those released in recent years by Afghan officials or Afghan courts were most of the 46 Taliban prisoners who had been returned from the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. One became the top insurgent commander in southern Afghanistan: Maulavi Abdul Qayum Zakir, whose real name is Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul. He was released from an Afghan prison in late 2008, just before the American troop surge was to start. Another was the suicide bomber who in December very nearly killed Asadullah Khalid, the head of the Afghan intelligence service. The attacker had previously been freed by a presidential pardon, according to officials of that agency.
Keenly aware of such cases, American military commanders had stubbornly insisted that they retain some control over decisions about releasing prisoners, which in turn led to a toxic, protracted dispute with the government of President Hamid Karzai.
Now, however, the Americans have given in, their eyes on a post-2014 security deal seen as critical to keeping insurgents from returning and keeping tabs on two of Afghanistan's worrisome neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, officials said. Western and Afghan officials interviewed about the issue spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations. The handover ceremony came just hours before the new American secretary of state, John Kerry, arrived in Kabul for talks with President Karzai.
"It's all part of the bilateral security agreement; it's about a shift that's going on in how the U.S. is looking at what's important," said one American official knowledgeable about detention issues. "We have to look at the larger picture: What's the U.S. strategic interest here?"
The decision was said to have been eased in part by "private assurances" from Afghan officials not to release "enduring security threats," as they call the most dangerous prisoners. They are believed to number no more than 50 among the nearly 4,000 prisoners at Bagram, in the sprawling prison compound connected to the American air base north of Kabul.
Since the transfer to the Afghans began last spring, they have released 1,376 of the prisoners, General Barakzai said. Those releases occurred when the Americans still had a veto and ran joint review boards with the Afghans to determine who could be released.
Even those earlier prison releases led to the return to the battlefield of some high-level Taliban figures, a senior Afghan military official said. According to the senior Afghan military officer, among those confirmed to have returned to the fight include Maulavi Said Khail, who is now a Taliban commander in Wardak Province; Maulavi Shaheer, who turned formerly peaceful Badakhshan Province into a new war zone, where 17 Afghan soldiers were killed in a single battle this month and 10 more taken hostage on Monday; and Maulavi Raouf, who has become one of several new commanders in Helmand Province, where the insurgents are trying to regain control as American surge forces have pulled out.
Afghan officials said the review boards will no longer exist and all prisoners at Bagram, present and future, will go straight into normal judicial proceedings. American officials, however, said they expected the Afghans to maintain review boards, but without American participation. The difference may be a semantic one, as Afghans expect teams of prosecutors to review which prisoners are released and which are prosecuted in court.
An American military official in Kabul insisted that the military has confidence that those insurgents whom the United States views as enduring security threats would not be released easily or quickly. "These people pose a threat to Afghan soldiers and Afghan civilians, too," the official said. "We're confident they will have appropriate measures in place to ensure dangerous detainees don't pose a threat to Afghan and coalition forces."
The Americans have long argued for a nonjudicial review process and a way to hold insurgent prisoners in long-term administrative detention, because of the difficulty of building criminal cases under battlefield conditions. Americans have argued that without such a system, soldiers in the field may be tempted to kill rather than capture insurgents. Afghan officials objected that administrative detention was unconstitutional.
In the past, most releases of Taliban prisoners have occurred from Afghan prisons; only prisoners captured by the Americans are taken to Bagram. In addition, prisoners for whom criminal court cases can be brought have been routinely transferred from Bagram into the Afghan penal system.
Many of those have been released by the courts, or through presidential pardons. One recent example was Maulavi Dastager, who was released from Pul-e-Charki Prison and immediately rejoined the Taliban in Badghis Province, where he was responsible for an attack that killed 14 Afghan soldiers and policemen, according to a police commander in Badghis, Col. Amir Shah Naybzada. "The government is always making mistakes by releasing Taliban commanders who go right back to the insurgency," he said.
In Kunar Province, a troubled area in eastern Afghanistan, Afghan intelligence officials gave the names of three Taliban fighters who were released in the past year and rejoined the fight in Narai District. One has since been recaptured.
Critics of Mr. Karzai were alarmed recently when he appointed a prominent cleric in Kabul, Maulavi Enayatulah Balegh, to review the cases of 700 mullahs and religious officials who are in Afghan prisons, mostly because of suspected insurgent activity. Known for his anti-American sentiments, Mr. Balegh recommended the release of hundreds of the Taliban clerics in a meeting earlier this month with Mr. Karzai.
In an interview, Mr. Balegh said he had determined that 100 to 150 of the imprisoned clerics were merely members of the Taliban but had not committed any crimes. Many of the others should be released as well, he said. "There are those who have served several years of their sentences; they need to be released," he said. "Those who tried to carry out a bombing or an assassination but didn't succeed, they need to be released. This is our goal: to empower the peace process."
Mr. Balegh dismissed American concerns that released prisoners would return to the war. "We Afghans are the ones who face the most danger from these people who are released, not the Americans," he said.
Opposition leaders in Afghanistan have complained that Mr. Karzai has repeatedly released high-level Taliban prisoners without getting anything from the Taliban in return, since they have so far refused to participate in peace talks with the Afghan government, dismissing it as a puppet of the Americans.
"What Karzai is doing is making random decisions on releasing the Taliban without getting any assurances from them," said Abdullah Abdullah, who ran against Mr. Karzai in the 2009 elections. "In most cases they have rejoined the battlefield."
One of the most notorious such cases took place last year, when Afghan intelligence agents captured two would-be suicide bombers, both aged about 12. One of them, Nasibullah, was among a group of children who had been arrested the year before in an earlier attempted suicide bombing. Mr. Karzai publicly forgave and pardoned the youth.
Mr. Karzai has repeatedly made gestures to reach out to the Taliban even as he has undercut efforts by the international community to start talks with the insurgents separately, which the Taliban have favored. On Sunday, the Afghan Foreign Ministry announced that Mr. Karzai would travel later this week to Qatar, where he would discuss the possibility of that Gulf state's serving as a site for the Taliban to open an office to be used in peace negotiations.
Contributing reporting were Michael R. Gordon, Sharifullah Sahak and Sangar Rahimi in Kabul and an Afghan employee of The New York Times in Kunar.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.