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Detention in Afghanistan: The End Draws Closer

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Friday, January 11, 2013 at 4:25 PM

The meeting between Presidents Obama and Karzai today appears to have produced an agreement that will revive the process of shutting down U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan.  As reported in the Wall Street Journal:

With Mr. Obama at his side, Mr. Karzai said on Friday that the two have agreed on what he called the complete return of detention centers and detainees to “Afghan sovereignty,” but offered few details. He said the detainee agreement would be implemented soon after his return to Afghanistan.

But what precisely was agreed? The United States and Afghanistan quite a while back agreed to a handover of detention operations to Afghan authority, but more recently disputes emerged with respect to: whether this included newly-captured detainees; whether it included non-Afghan detainees; whether the United States should have any discretion to delay or decline altogether to release detainees who are in fact included and whom Afghan authorities determine to then release; and whether Afghanistan is at last going to formally embrace its own non-criminal detention framework.   Bearing all that in mind, it is possible that the agreement reached today has to do with only a subset of these issues.  It almost certainly encompasses all Afghan citizen detainees, though.  Note this line from earlier in the piece:

Mr. Karzai has signaled his willingness to provide … immunity [to US forces that may remain in Afghanistan] in exchange for a series of U.S. assurances, including that hundreds of Afghan detainees now held by U.S. troops are turned over to the Afghan government. [emphasis added]

And of course there also was a joint statement from the two which explicitly referenced only Afghan detainees being transferred:

[T]he Presidents committed to placing Afghan detainees under the sovereignty and control of Afghanistan, while also ensuring that dangerous fighters remain off the battlefield.  [emphasis added]

All that said, the apparent effort to slow-roll the wind-down of detention operations couldn’t last for ever in any event.  As the larger headlines associated with today’s meeting make clear, we are on the fast track to the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, with the only remaining question appearing to be whether we follow the example of Iraq all the way and withdraw altogether at the end of next year, or instead leave behind a training-oriented force consisting of several thousand personnel (apparently no more than 9,000 are on the table at this point as a possibility).  The clock is officially ticking, then, on figuring out what to do with any detainees–particularly non-Afghan detainees–who remain in our custody there and whom we would very much not want to see set free.  Ah, but don’t forget that under the latest NDAA, Congress will get advance briefing on any transfers of such persons.