Last week President Hamid Karzai and his Cabinet, in a blow to the U.S. and international presence in Afghanistan, approved the release of dozens of Afghan prisoners who had been involved in attacks on Americans, other international forces and Afghan soldiers.
Mr. Karzai’s decision comes in the midst of boiling conflict between the Obama administration, which is seeking to prolong a U.S. presence in Afghanistan after the end of this year, and the Afghan president, who is dragging his feet on a decision about the issue. He has said, for example, to the intense displeasure of American officials, that he will not sign an accord agreeing to the extended U.S. military presence before Afghan presidential elections, expected to be held in April.
In the meantime, control over all prisoner detention was handed over to Afghan authorities by the Americans last year. Decision-making on releases is now under the control of a three-person Afghan commission. Since March, 650 hard-won prisoners have been released from a lock-up at Bagram Air Force Base, near Kabul. The commission reportedly plans the release of at least 85 more.
Apart from the insult to American and other international forces represented by the release of the prisoners, some of whom they had fought to apprehend and who were involved in 117 attacks on Americans, other international troops and Afghan government soldiers, there is the real risk that upon release they will return immediately to combat in the war in Afghanistan.
For Mr. Karzai the releases represent an effort to reach out to the Taliban and his other opponents, seeking to present himself as president of all the Afghans. But the danger to American and other foreign forces in the country is only augmented by the releases.
This provocative act by Mr. Karzai, unless reversed, constitutes another reason for the United States to complete its involvement in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, as planned. The Afghan government’s release of fighters who have been captured and confined for their attacks on Americans and others is a clear signal that our forces are not welcome there, even to the government they are ostensibly protecting.