By Nick Paton Walsh
Up to 20 high-level insurgent prisoners have been released from NATO custody in Afghanistan over the past two years in an effort to boost peace negotiations with the Taliban in various regions of the country, according to U.S. officials.
The insurgents, held at the jointly-run NATO-Afghan detention facility of Parwan, are considered "bad guys," said one U.S. official who did not want to be identified discussing a sensitive issue. Their release was undertaken, the official said, often at the request of the Afghan government. In all cases, they were assessed as unlikely to rejoin the insurgency.
The official added that the Taliban detainees had been in the maximum security Parwan detention center “for a reason” – but that NATO "does not release anyone when there is a high likelihood they will rejoin the insurgency." The official said he was aware of only two releases in the last nine months.
Some previously released Afghan detainees, especially from the U.S.-run detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have allegedly rejoined the insurgency, suggesting such programs are not without risk.
The U.S. official said the releases occur “when officials determine that the benefits significantly outweigh the risks.”
The releases are often intended to assist efforts by ISAF field commanders to negotiate truces or peace with local insurgent leaders in areas where the Taliban are strong.
News of the releases was first broken by the Washington Post which quoted U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker as telling reporters: "The Afghans have come to us with information that might strengthen the reconciliation process. Many times we do act on it."
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Monday expanded upon the ambassador's comments, with spokesman Gavin Sundwall saying, “Ambassador Crocker was referencing a two-year old, rarely-used program in which senior military officials, together with their Afghan counterparts, weigh the benefits of releasing certain individuals who are being detained at the Parwan Detention Facility and who are willing to denounce violence and engage in the process of reconciliation."
"Fewer than 20 detainees have ever been released under this program,” he added, “and the decision to release a detainee takes into account whether they pose any further security threat.”