What could possibly go wrong?
KABUL (WaPo) — The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.
As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.
But the releases are an inherent gamble: The freed detainees are often notorious fighters who would not be released under the traditional legal system for military prisoners in Afghanistan. They must promise to give up violence — and U.S. officials warn them that if they are caught attacking American troops, they will be detained once again.
There are no absolute guarantees, however, and officials would not say whether those who have been released under the program have later returned to attack U.S. and Afghan forces once again.
“Everyone agrees they are guilty of what they have done and should remain in detention. Everyone agrees that these are bad guys. But the benefits outweigh the risks,” said one U.S. official who, like others, discussed the issue on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the program.
The releases have come amid broader efforts to end the decade-long war through negotiation, which is a central feature of the Obama administration’s strategy for leaving Afghanistan. Those efforts, however, have yielded little to no progress in recent years. In part, they have been stymied by the unwillingness of the United States to release five prisoners from Guantanamo Bay — a gesture that insurgent leaders have said they see as a precondition for peace talks.