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Afghanistan's Karzai infuriates U.S. by freeing 65 accused terrorists

| Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 8:21 p.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Disregarding heated American protests, Afghanistan released 65 accused terrorists from a former U.S. prison on Thursday despite warnings that the men are dangerous Taliban fighters and bomb-makers likely to return to killing foreign forces and Afghans.

The freeing of the men from the Parwan Detention Center further strains relations between Washington and President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader's increasingly anti-American rhetoric and refusal to sign a long-negotiated bilateral security deal has heightened uncertainty before the year-end withdrawal of most international forces.

The White House is dropping its insistence that Afghanistan sign a crucial security pact within weeks, suggesting it could be willing to wait to see whether Karzai's successor might be easier to work with in deciding how many U.S. and international troops remain in Afghanistan when combat concludes at the end of the year.

American-led combat operations in Afghanistan will end on Dec. 31, but the United States is seeking to keep as many as 10,000 troops on the ground for counterterrorism and training missions. But without a signed security agreement setting conditions for the American forces, the White House has said it will remove all U.S. troops at the end of the year.

Karzai's refusal to sign the security pact, along with his increasingly anti-American rhetoric, has strained relations with the Obama administration. During remarks on the prisoner release, Karzai accused America of “harassing” the Afghan judiciary by criticizing the release and said Washington must respect Afghanistan's sovereignty.

Outrage over Karzai's decision mirrors the mistrust and resentment that has developed between the ostensible allies in recent years. The souring of sentiment has often played out in a tug-of-war over control of the detention facility near the American military's Bagram Air Field, about 28 miles north of Kabul.

Karzai reacted sharply to the strong U.S. and NATO criticism over the releases, saying it was not up to foreign powers to determine Afghan justice.

“Afghanistan is a sovereign country. If Afghanistan judiciary authorities decide to release prisoners, it is of no concern to the United States,” Karzai said at the end of a summit with Pakistani and Turkish leaders in the Turkish capital, Ankara.

The move could be a gesture by Karzai to try to woo Taliban terrorists into joining peace talks with his government before he leaves office later this year, since he is unable to serve a third term.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen strongly condemned the release.

“This decision, which appears to have been made based on political calculations and without regard for due process before the Afghan courts, is a major step backward for the rule of law in Afghanistan and poses serious security concerns,” Rasmussen said.

Obama's critics suggested the lack of clarity over the U.S. role in Afghanistan may be contributing to Karzai's unpredictable behavior.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that while Karzai is to blame for the prisoner release, the move is “a reminder that we need President Obama to better explain his commitment to finishing the job our country began.”

For the United States, the release of the men the American military calls “dangerous insurgents who have Afghan blood on their hands” is another sign of Karzai's erratic behavior and the weakness of Afghanistan's justice system. A military spokesman said many of the 65 were captured after Afghan authorities took over the prison in March, and dossiers of evidence had been handed over to try them in Afghan courts.

Karzai, who ordered the 65 detainees released several weeks ago, insisted that the decision was made by the Afghan judiciary after a thorough review.

Among those believed to have walked free is Mohammad Wali, who the U.S. military says is a suspected Taliban explosives expert who allegedly planted roadside bombs targeting Afghan and international forces. Also believed released is Nek Mohammad — who the U.S. officials say was captured with extensive weapons — and a man identified as Ehsanullah, who is claimed to have been biometrically matched to a roadside bomb.

The U.S. military said some of those set free were directly linked to attacks that have killed or wounded 32 U.S. or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians. A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul also condemned the release.

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