KABUL, Afghanistan -- Tensions simmered Monday as the main U.S. military prison in Afghanistan was formally transferred to Afghan control, even as Afghan officials accused the Americans of reneging on parts of the handover pact.
The dispute bodes ill for relations between the American and Afghan administrations in the coming year, when much of the responsibility for running the decade-old war is to be turned over to the Afghans in advance of the end of NATO's combat role. President Hamid Karzai's government has been increasingly strident in asserting Afghan sovereignty even when U.S. or NATO officials have qualms about whether Afghans are up to a given task.
Authority over most of the estimated 3,000 prisoners at the Parwan Detention Facility, located at the sprawling Bagram air base north of the capital, had already been handed over to Afghan officials before Monday's official transfer.
But the Americans have concerns that suspected members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups may either be released without proper scrutiny or subjected to torture. The Afghans in turn say Americans routinely hold suspects for long periods of time without charging them.
Adding to the overall air of acrimony, the detention center earlier this year was the scene of one of the year’s most damaging episodes for U.S.-Afghan relations: the burning of copies of the Koran by U.S. troops, which set off days of lethal riots. Those involved were subjected to military discipline, but many Afghans believe that the administrative punishments were not nearly severe enough.
Karzai's government staged an elaborate handover ceremony Monday morning at Bagram, even while warning that the United States would be in breach of a memorandum of understanding signed six months ago if not all of the prisoners were turned over. The United States has retained custody of about 35 detainees, many of them insurgent suspects, together with a few dozen non-Afghan nationals.
[Updated, 10:24 a.m. Sept. 10: "Under Afghan law, foreigners are not allowed to have even one detainee; all the detainees need to be handed over to the Afghan side," said Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimy, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Defense Ministry.]
Karzai and U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, who commands the NATO force, reportedly had an angry dispute over the transfer issue during a weekend meeting. A spokesman for the Western military, German Brig. Gen. Gunter Katz, on Monday characterized it as a private exchange "between partners."
-- Laura King
Photo: Afghan soldiers stand in formation during a ceremony handing over the Parwan Detention Facility, the main U.S. military prison in Afghanistan, to Afghan control. Credit: Shah Marai / Getty Images