The main coalition-run prison in Afghanistan was formally handed over to Afghan authorities Monday, reducing Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s highest-ranking military police officers to a backseat role managing the facility.
Col. Robert Taradash of Lewis-McChord’s 42nd Military Police Brigade handed control of the Parwan Detention Facility at Bagram Air Field to the Afghan government, making good on a pledge to increase Afghan autonomy as Western countries withdraw from the decade-old war.
For the Tacoma-area soldiers, the ceremony marked the waning weeks of an eventful deployment. They took responsibility for more than 3,000 detainees in the prison seven months ago in the midst of a national uproar triggered by the burning of Islamic holy books at the jail.
Those sometimes fatal protests hastened NATO’s decision to accept Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s push for more control over the jail.
Taradash stressed that NATO has taken steps to ensure that detainees at the prison do not take up arms against Western or Afghan forces.
“We transferred more than 3,000 Afghan detainees into your custody … and ensured that those who would threaten the partnership of Afghanistan and coalition forces will not return to the battlefield,” he said at the ceremony, in remarks recorded by the BBC.
But despite the pomp and kind words at Monday’s transfer ceremony, several issues between NATO and Karzai remain unsettled.
The U.S. is withholding the transfer of scores of inmates, reportedly out of concern that Afghan authorities may simply let some detainees go and no longer hold dangerous prisoners without charge.
American irritation was apparent at the ceremony at the prison, about 25 miles north of Kabul. No American officers ranking higher than Taradash attended, although the Afghan government sent its defense minister, army chief of staff and other officials.
Karzai also did not attend, though he released a statement calling the handover a “very big step regarding the sovereignty of Afghanistan.”
“Now, the Bagram prison is converted to one of Afghanistan’s regular prisons where the innocents will be freed and the rest of the prisoners will be sentenced according to the laws of Afghanistan,” the statement said.
One of the more than 2,000 Afghan military policemen now at the prison said the inmates were pleased to be guarded by Afghans.
“We are Afghan and they are Afghan. They are Muslim. We are Muslim,” said Ashna Gul, a military policeman from Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. “We can see each other through the steel windows. Sometimes we are laughing and joking with the prisoners, and they are happy with our guys.”
Hours after the handover ceremony, a suicide attack killed 15 people and wounded 25 others in the northern city of Kunduz. The bombing was a stark reminder that insurgents continue their fight against Afghan and U.S.-led coalition troops and that many detainees at the prison are suspected of organizing such attacks.
The U.S. began detention operations at Bagram Air Field in early 2002. For several years, prisoners were kept at a former Soviet aircraft machine plant converted into a lockup. In 2009, the U.S. opened a new detention facility next door. The number of detainees incarcerated at the prison, now called the Parwan Detention Facility, has swelled from about 1,100 in September 2010 to 3,110 in the spring of this year.
The prison has been the focus of controversy in the past but never had the notoriety of the prisons at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
In February, the prison gained unwanted attention when hundreds of Qurans and other religious materials were taken from its library and sent to a burn pit at the military base. The event triggered deadly anti-American protests across Afghanistan. More than 30 Afghans and six U.S. soldiers were killed during the violent demonstrations.
Karzai said Qurans would never have been burned if Afghans had been in control of the prison then.
Taradash took command of the detention center on the day the Qurans were burned. He was not aware that soldiers planned to dispose of books they confiscated in a sweep of the prison library by burning the texts, according to a recently released Army investigation.
Karzai and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding about the future of the detention facility on March 9, following tense negotiations that frequently stalled.
Since then, the U.S. has transferred 3,082 detainees to Afghan control, according to Afghan Army Gen. Ghulam Farouk, who now heads the prison. He said Monday that the U.S. was in the process of transferring the remaining 30 inmates picked up before the memorandum was signed plus another 600 captured after the signing.
But a few weeks ago, the U.S. stopped all transfers.
“Some 99 percent of the detainees captured before 9 March have already been transferred to Afghan authority, but we have paused the transfer of the remaining detainees until our concerns are met,” said Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition.
Graybeal would not describe the concerns, but a report released last week by the New York-based Open Society Foundations said the rift was over whether the Afghans will have a so-called “internment” system that allows some detainees to be held without charge or trial. The U.S. has been holding detainees in internment at Bagram for years.
Although the Afghan government agreed to embrace an internment system by signing the accord in March, some top Afghan officials and legal experts contend it violates the Afghan constitution, the report said. Moreover, Karzai himself is opposed to administrative detention, according to the report.
The U.S. is now worried that the Afghan government will discontinue internment and either release dangerous detainees or forward their cases to the loosely run Afghan judicial system, which is tainted by corruption and secrecy, the group said.
On the flip side of the legal issue, some Afghan legal experts are worried about Afghan officials abusing any authority to hold detainees without trial.Staff writer Adam Ashton contributed to this report.