KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan's president accused U.S. forces of capturing and holding Afghans in violation of an agreement to turn over that responsibility to his forces, complicating a new round of security talks between the two countries.
Hamid Karzai's statement late Sunday came just days after the beginning of negotiations on a bilateral security agreement that will govern the U.S. military presence in the country after the majority of troops draw down in 2014.
Karzai's critics say he frequently strikes populist, nationalist poses that give him leverage in talks with the Americans. Karzai, in turn, has said that he needs to protect Afghanistan's national interest in the face of a much stronger partner.
The two countries signed the detainee transfer pact in March, but the accord was vaguely worded and the U.S. has slowed the handover of detention facilities. Washington believes that the Afghans are not ready to take over their management, while insisting that the Afghan government agree to hold without trial some detainees that the U.S. deems too dangerous to release.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is committed to fulfilling its pledges. "We do have a number of cases that we are continuing to work through with the Afghan government to ensure that commitments are kept on both sides," she said. "And we will work through those diligently."
In his statement, Karzai criticized the continued arrest of Afghans by U.S. forces. His spokesman, Aimal Faizi, told reporters Monday that more than 70 detainees are still being held by the Americans despite being ordered released by Afghan courts.
"These acts are completely against the agreement that has been signed between Afghanistan and the U.S. president," said Karzai's statement, urging Afghan officials to push for taking over all responsibility at the Parwan detention center at the Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan. It is the only facility where Americans confirm holding Afghan prisoners.
The disagreement over detention without trial, often called administrative detention, had put the entire transfer schedule on hold.
Faizi, the Afghan president's spokesman, said administrative detention is against Afghan law.
"There is nothing by the name of 'administration detention' in our laws, yet the U.S. is insisting that there are a number of people who, while there is not enough evidence against them, are a threat to U.S. national security," he said.
Faizi also said that Karzai had agreed in a video conference call with President Barack Obama earlier this fall to give the Americans two months to figure out an alternative to detention without trial, until after the U.S. presidential election. This grace period has now expired, said the spokesman.
U.S. Embassy spokesman John Rhatigan said the United States expects to carry out its pledges.
"The United States fully respects the sovereignty of Afghanistan, and we are committed to fulfilling the mutual commitments incurred under the memorandum of understanding on detentions," Rhatigan said in an email.
"The United States is working with Afghanistan to discuss the way ahead and we are confident we will succeed," he wrote.
The detainee transfer deal was one of two pacts that paved the way for a broad but vague strategic partnership agreement signed by Kabul and Washington in May that set forth an American commitment to Afghanistan for years to come. The second pact covers "special operations" such as certain American raids.
A third detailed pact, the bilateral security agreement, is now under negotiation. It covers logistical and legal questions such as the size and number of bases and the immunity of U.S. forces from prosecution.
The two countries officially opened negotiations on the bilateral security agreement last week and have given themselves a year to sign the pact.
Karzai is under pressure to give an appearance of upholding Afghan sovereignty — which he has repeatedly claimed to champion — without putting so many restrictions on U.S. forces that an agreement becomes impossible.
It is believed that the United States wants to retain up to 20,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to train and support Afghan forces and go after extremist groups, including al-Qaida. Roughly 66,000 U.S. troops are currently in Afghanistan; it's unclear how many will be withdrawn next year as they continue to hand over security to Afghan forces. The foreign military mission is evolving from combat to advising, assisting and training Afghan forces.
The bilateral security agreement will set up a legal framework needed to operate military forces in Afghanistan, including taxation, visas and other technical issues. It does not need to be ratified by Congress. The U.S. has similar agreements with dozens of countries. In Iraq, a similar deal fell apart after U.S. officials were unable to reach an agreement with the Iraqis on legal issues and troop immunity that would have allowed a small training and counterterrorism force to remain there.
Karzai said last month that the issue of soldiers being protected from prosecution in Afghanistan could be a problem in the talks. He has said Afghanistan might demand prosecutions in some cases.
The issue took on new meaning following the case of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, charged in the attacks on Afghan civilians in two villages in southern Afghanistan. The American soldier faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder in the March 11 attacks against civilians. A preliminary hearing was held this week at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.