More than 500 suspected Taliban fighters detained by U.S. forces have been released from custody at the urging of Afghan government officials, angering both American troops and some Afghans who oppose the policy on the grounds that many of those released return to the battlefield to kill NATO soldiers and Afghan civilians.
And those numbers understate the problem, military officials say. They do not include suspected Taliban fighters held in small combat outposts or other forward operating bases throughout the region who are released before they ever become part of the official detainee population.
An Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that President Hamid Karzai's government has personally sought the release of as many as 700 suspected Taliban fighters since July, including some mid-level leaders. "Corruption is not just based on the amount of money that is wasted but wasted lives when Taliban return only to kill more NATO forces and civilians," said the official, who opposes what he considers corruption in the Karzai administration.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Karen Davis, a spokeswoman in Kabul, told The Washington Examiner "nearly 500 detainees held in the [detention facility in Parwan] have been released outright or transferred to the [Afghan government] for disposition under Afghan law" so far this year.
She did not comment on detainees held at other facilities throughout the country, dozens of whom have been released, according to U.S. military officials in Afghanistan. Parwan is the main prison facility located at Bagram Airfield, just north of the capital of Kabul.
Davis added "nearly 200 of those 500 [at Bagram] have been released" since July.
The criteria for detention is not based upon a particular affiliation, such as the Taliban, "but rather is an assessment based upon a preponderance of evidence that an individual participated in the conflict as an enemy combatant and, if so, detention is necessary to mitigate the threat posed to the government and people of Afghanistan, the U.S. and its coalition partners," Davis said.
The Detainee Review Board, made up of three U.S. commissioned officers with a rank of major or above, determines when a prisoner is eligible for release and whether a detainee is likely to be rehabilitated.
Prisoners held at the Bagram facility are not considered guilty or innocent but rather a determination is made "based upon evidence that detention is necessary to mitigate the threat the detainee poses to the government and people of Afghanistan, the U.S. and its coalition partners," states a document provided by the International Security Assistance Force.
Earlier this year, The Examiner reported that numerous insurgents captured in Pakistan, including some members of al Qaeda, were returned to Afghanistan upon the request of the Karzai government, and then, according to a senior Pakistani official, "released back to the Taliban as bargaining chips in negotiations."
A marine stationed in southern Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province told The Examiner that efforts to detain insurgent fighters are "worthless."
Earlier this year, his unit held a man known to be working with the Taliban. The Marines had gathered evidence that the man was transporting hundreds of pounds of bomb-making equipment and explosives for the Taliban. But, shortly after they captured him, he was set free.
"Less than two weeks later, we saw the same guy walking through the bazaar," said the marine, who spoke on condition that he not be named. "He recognized us. I wanted to shoot him right then and there. We got the guy, and yet there he was, walking around planning to kill again, and we couldn't do a thing about it."
For American combat troops in Afghanistan, the release of suspect Taliban is seen as a symptom of the corruption of the Karzai government.
"Back-room dealings between Karzai officials and local government connected to the Taliban make NATO's work almost impossible," said a military official stationed in Afghanistan. "They call the shots, and we've got to release the bad guys."
The release of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks last week provided a rare glimpse into what the State Department considers official corruption in the Karzai government.
That was the opinion of Afghan officials interviewed recently. "Afghanistan is a corrupt mess populated by citizens who are far more comfortable thinking and acting locally and tribally than nationally," one official said. "Karzai takes advantage of that for his own benefit," he added. "The U.S. turns a blind eye because they don't know how to stop it."
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at email@example.com.