On March 25, the United States commander in Afghanistan handed over what had been the notorious Bagram prison — now renamed the Afghan National Detention Facility at Parwan — to the government of President Hamid Karzai. About 4,000 prisoners there have been transferred to Afghan control since September 2012; about 1350 of those have already been released, but a further transfer of control was delayed because Washington rejected Kabul’s plans to release prisoners the U.S. considers a security threat. Although Afghans see the handover as a key reassertion of national sovereignty, the agreement is not legally binding. Besides, U.S. forces will leave behind a bitter legacy of torture; at least two prisoners died at Bagram, where the U.S. also ran a secret prison. In addition, about 50 prisoners still held will remain in U.S. hands with no prospect of trial, and American soldiers will be able to hold any others they capture for 96 hours before handing them over to the Afghan authorities.
Parwan, however, is only one issue among many which shows the complexity involved in the process of foreign troops leaving Afghanistan as planned in 2014. For example, disputes continue over immunity for U.S. personnel and over control of special operations that the Americans will continue to run. Secondly, 102,000 troops from 50 countries are still present, including 66,000 American personnel. The intended withdrawals are only partly the result of what the troop-contributing governments say is their contribution in training the Afghan military and police. Unfortunately, the U.S. and its allies have been far less generous and forthcoming on the training front, despite the fact that the Afghan National Security Forces will serve as the first and, in many ways, only line of defence against the Taliban after 2014. The insurgents, who number about 20,000, have killed over 3,000 foreign troops since 2001, and it is unclear how the 185,000-strong Afghan National Army will fare against them. Thirdly, civilian casualties have risen every year for the last five years, and civilian deaths caused by Nato raids have only intensified the anger of ordinary Afghans. Even after 12 years, however, Nato seems to have learnt little, and its troops sparked days of rioting when they burnt copies of the Koran in 2012. Even worse rancour was caused by a video apparently showing U.S. soldiers urinating on dead Taliban fighters. The number of foreign troops who will remain after 2014 is, moreover, not clear, and the obvious conclusion is that the Parwan “handover” is only a smokescreen for the continuation of a muddled strategy that combines a desire to walk away from the problem with apathy and indifference towards Afghan sovereign capabilities.