Afghanistan has released 65 Taliban prisoners despite protests from the US. Experts view Kabul's move as an attempt to appease the militant Islamists that is likely to strain US-Afghan relations even further.
The United States had warned the Afghan government against freeing the detainees from one of its former prisons in Bagram. Washington had stated that the move could pose a serious security threat to Afghanistan as most of the Islamists prisoners were "dangerous individuals" who were directly linked to attacks on NATO forces.
But Afghan President Hamid Karzai reacted to the claims calling the Bagram prison a "Taliban-producing factory" and alleging that some of the inmates were even tortured by the US forces.
As a result, the Afghan president, whose relations with Washington have strained in the past few months, ordered the release of the Taliban detainees several weeks ago. The prisoners were finally freed on Thursday, February 13.
"The 65 prisoners were released and walked out of the Bagram prison compound this morning," Abdul Shukor Dadras, an Afghan official, told AFP. "Their cases were reviewed and we have no reason to keep them in jail," Dadras added.
As expected the US reacted by calling the prisoners' release a "deeply regrettable" move that it said was in violation of a 2012 US-Afghan agreement on detainees. "The Afghan government bears responsibility for the results of its decision," the US embassy in Kabul said in a statement on its website.
The move is seen by analysts as part of the Afghan government's efforts to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban. The New York Times reported on Monday, February 3, that the Karzai government was engaged in “secret talks” with the Islamist insurgents while excluding its biggest financier, the US.
Karzai has also been refusing to sign the proposed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the US, which would allow some American troops to operate in the war-ravaged country after the NATO drawdown scheduled for the end of this year.
Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says US-Afghan relations are so bad at the moment that "neither side really worries about angering the other anymore."
"There is really no hope of reconciliation until a new government is in power in Afghanistan," Kugelman told DW, adding that there could be a set of reasons for the militants' release from prison.
"On the one hand, President Karzai, knowing it is an election year, could have wanted to do something to cater to the anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan," he said. Another theory is that Karzai may have wanted to distance itself from the perception that he is a stooge of the US government, and may have therefore decided to defy the US in a big way.
The expert points out that although the release is unlikely to be related to the secret talks between Kabul and the Taliban, this could have been done, however, with an eye toward currying favor with the insurgents, in order to increase the possibility of getting them to return to the negotiating table.
Talks in Ankara
On Thursday, February 13, Karzai met with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Turkish capital, Ankara, to discuss his country's security situation after the NATO pullout. It is the eighth such talk in Turkey since a consultation mechanism was established in 2007 to encourage the two South Asian neighbors to cooperate in the fight against extremist groups.
Like Afghanistan, Pakistan, too, is engaged in talks with the Taliban. The representatives of the Pakistani government and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) met in the capital Islamabad last week to discuss a road map aimed at ending a decade-long violent insurgency in the country.
"The Ankara talks are about who will get what in Afghanistan after the NATO drawdown," Farooq Sulehria, a London-based political analyst, told DW, adding that Pakistan wanted a bigger influence in Kabul through the Taliban.
"It is pretty clear that Karzai has gone against the US,” Sulehria said. Like Kugelman, Sulehria also argues that the release of the Taliban prisoners from the Bagram prison and Karzai's refusal to sign the BSA should be seen in the context of the upcoming Afghan presidential vote. "Karzai's brother is contesting these elections. These are the Karzais' attempts to appease anti-US voters in the Taliban-dominated areas," Sulehria said.
The analyst is of the view that Sharif and Karzai are aware of the repercussions of turning against the US, but the imminent NATO withdrawal allows them to "bargain more" with the global superpower.