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Prisoner dispute stalls Afghan security talks

| Thursday, March 14, 2013, 9:54 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A dispute over the fate of about three dozen terrorists held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan has disrupted negotiations over a long-term security agreement to leave troops in the country after 2014.

The United States has refused to turn over the prisoners — deemed especially dangerous compared with more than 3,000 already transferred to Afghan control — unless President Hamid Karzai guarantees they will not be released. He has so far declined.

As tensions have risen in recent days, Karzai has accused the United States of breaking an agreement on the transfers. On Tuesday, he warned his government might move to take over the U.S.-supervised prison at Bagram Air Base where they are held. During a visit last weekend by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Karzai accused the United States of torturing Afghan civilians and colluding with the Taliban to prolong the war.

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., ordered troops to intensify security measures on Wednesday out of concern that Karzai's statements are creating a greater risk of attack from rogue Afghan security forces and insurgents.

The Obama administration considers the detainee problem a short-term disagreement unrelated to the strategic negotiations on Afghanistan's future security. But Karzai has linked the two issues, drawing a direct line between U.S. acceptance of Afghanistan's legal sovereignty and America's demand that Afghanistan grant legal immunity to troops within its borders after the 2014 withdrawal.

Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Karzai, said the “lack of trust” that the United States has exhibited over the prisoners and other matters “certainly will have a negative impact on the bilateral security agreement.”

U.S. officials agree that a stalemate has been reached. “But we're not sure whether we have a systemic walkback or just a technical issue that we have not moved to resolution quickly enough,” a senior administration official said. A late spring deadline to complete the security deal is “at risk of slipping,” the official said.

As Karzai's rhetoric has become more inflamed, the administration has largely held its tongue. U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid escalating the confrontation, say they understand that Karzai has a domestic political audience so they're giving him a chance to vent.

“His politics are, of course, different from ours,” the senior administration official said. “For us, the premium is on force protection,” and not allowing dangerous terrorists to return to the battlefield; “for him, the premium is on Afghan sovereignty.”

In response to the Dunford troop directive, first reported by The New York Times, Karzai reportedly told Afghans gathered at the presidential palace on Thursday that his comments “were meant to help reform, not destroy the relationship.”

Although he is due to leave office next year, Karzai and his political allies face the prospect of how to survive after the withdrawal of Western combat troops and are determined to portray themselves as nationalist leaders.

Last year, the United States agreed to give Afghans custody of thousands of battlefield prisoners at Parwan prison.

With U.S. assistance, Afghan prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges have been trying the prisoners for crimes under the Afghan penal code. Many have been convicted and sentenced, but about 100 a month are released for lack of evidence.

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