White House and Military Clash over Bagram

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U.S. military and White House officials are grappling with an important question in Afghanistan: How long will the U.S. hold on to the detention facility at Bagram Air Force base? Military officials have estimated 80 to 90 percent of the 750 detainees are candidates for release, usually because they are non-ideological or "accidental" combatants who pose no long-term threat to the U.S. Some detainees have already been released as a show of goodwill. General Stanley McChrystal, the top ISAF commander in Afghanistan, has emphasized "the long-term goal of getting the U.S. out of the detention business" and warned that detention promotes anti-American sentiment. And yet, of the 576 detainees whose cases have been reviewed, only 66 have been released. The non-profit Inter Press Service, a human rights group, reports that the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has moved to block or slow detainee releases.

The standstill in detainee releases is curious because McChrystal is the former commander of JSOC and because he maintains close ties to the authority on Bagram, Vice Admiral Robert Harward, who was formerly McChrystal's deputy. Presumably, McChrystal is allowing JSOC's block. This suggests that the U.S. is only postponing detainee releases temporarily. There are many possible reasons--lending Afghan courts sovereignty by allowing them to decide release dates, for example. But it's possible that the U.S. is holding the detainees as a bargaining chit in the ongoing reconciliation talks with Taliban and local leaders. If the U.S. is going to release the prisoners anyway, it might as well try to get something for it. Alternatively, the U.S. may be waiting to transfer the facility to Afghan control, which McChrystal has pledged to do, so that the beleaguered Afghan government gets the credit for releasing detainees. Either way, reducing the size and scope of Bagram detention could go a long way to building trust between Afghans and Americans.

However, the Los Angeles Times reports that some White House officials are considering sending Guantanamo detainees to Bagram for indefinite detention there. In addition to raising a litany of legal and diplomatic questions, this would seriously undermine McChrystal's effort to use Bagram as a point of compromise in reducing violence in Afghanistan. If the U.S. openly plans to hold some Bagram detainees indefinitely, it will establish Bagram as a long-term, large-scale detention facility. That would hardly convince Afghans to trust U.S. promises of releasing large numbers of Bagram prisoners. Moreover, McChrystal opposes indefinite detention at any site, saying it undermines America's message that it is a friend to Afghans and promoting anti-American sentiment. On issues like "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Afghanistan troop increase, the White House has worked hard to demonstrate that it has the military on its side. It will have to be careful not to antagonize the military on Bagram detention if it wishes to maintain the thus-far positive White House-military relationship.

Image: Cells in the detention facility at Bagram Air Force Base, Afghanistan. Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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