Throughout the many twists and turns of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan over the last decade, one issue has remained a constant problem for Washington: the status of Afghan detainees in U.S. custody. The question of who has control over those held in Afghan prisons came to the forefront of the debate over the war again last month, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded that the United States immediately transfer control of the U.S.-run prison at the Bagram Air Base to Afghan authorities. Karzai’s move underscored the challenge the United States faces as it tries to extricate itself from Afghanistan: the closer the 2014 exit date becomes, the bolder Karzai is likelier to be in asserting Afghanistan’s sovereignty and his own viability as a political leader in the face of a potential Taliban resurgence.
The prison at the massive U.S. military base at Bagram, in the northern province of Parwan, has long been dogged by questions about its legitimacy and its strategic utility. For years, under the George W. Bush administration, it operated as one of the central nodes in the U.S. intelligence community’s global network of secret sites; access to detainees was severely restricted for both the Afghan government and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Upon taking office in January 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama signed an order that called for the closure of the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the CIA’s global network of black sites, the first of several signals that Obama was determined to reverse Bush’s detention policies. In August 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, dubbed Bagram a “strategic liability,” arguing that extrajudicial detentions at Bagram had eroded Afghan public support for the presence of foreign troops. In McChrystal’s view, Washington could no longer ignore the question of what to do with prisoners at Bagram.
Bagram also threatened to imperil the delicate alliance
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