Afghan President Hamid Karzai's peace jirga earlier this month was pretty close to a bust. Powerful northern rivals were conspicuously absent, as were the Taliban, who instead dispatched a pair of suicide bombers to disturb the proceedings, detonating not far from where the conference took place. The violence, however, overshadowed a rare moment of unity among influential lawmakers and elders: a full-throated call to release of hundreds of prisoners, possibly even including Taliban, languishing in Afghan and U.S. military jails.
In yet another affirmation of his will to end the Taliban-led insurgency through compromise rather than the end of a gun, the President said the jirga's demand compelled him to act quickly to free those prisoners who might oppose his government but have not been convicted of alleged crimes. The goal, he went on, was to build goodwill with "disenchanted people" in league with the Taliban.
Shortly after the jirga, Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghan intelligence agency NDS, resigned. It was widely believed that he had been browbeaten by Karzai for the security lapse that allowed the suicide bombers to be so close to the jirga. But Saleh had long bristled at what he viewed as Karzai's tendency to appease the Taliban for political gain; in fact, he had called the prisoner-release idea a "disgrace" that amounts to "negotiating with suicide bombers."
Saleh fears that freedom for such prisoners will increase the Taliban threat to the government, not diminish it. Case in point: Qayyum Zakir and Raouf Khadem, who were Taliban leaders incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for several years. In 2007, the pair were transferred back to Afghanistan. They were freed a year later, a move that's "extremely unlikely" to have happened without President Karzai's approval, according to Kate Clark, a Kabul-based expert with the Afghanistan Analysts Network. Within a short time they resurfaced on the battlefield. Khadem reportedly became chief of Taliban operations in three volatile southern provinces. Zakir, for his part, was selected to head the council that oversees military operations nationwide. In February, he was promoted to become one of Taliban chieftain Mullah Omar's two new deputies.
Some argue that those who have been wrongfully imprisoned and abused will gravitate to the insurgency when freed. Getting justice in Afghanistan remains a losing proposition: the court system remains a shambles, and ordinary criminal cases can take years to process, marred by arbitrary decisions or justice for sale. Meanwhile, rights groups estimate hundreds are locked up in U.S. detention facilities within Afghanistan and often held for months on end without formal charges. Persistent reports of torture have added to the public sense of distrust. "Jail is a recruiting tool for the Taliban," says Waheed Muzhda, an analyst who worked for the Taliban government. "They feel that they can trust people who get out and are angry with the government."
Nevertheless, Karzai is moving quickly, coming up with a prisoner-review plan that, so far, has NATO's blessing. Over the past week, a newly established review committee held meetings to begin screening detainees. Nasrullah Stanekzai, a professor at Kabul University and committee spokesman, says he and his colleagues tribal elders, lawmakers, lawyers and others have already begun looking over lists of prisoners with input from various Afghan security agencies and coalition forces. Prisoners who have already been sentenced or are still under investigation are not eligible for the time being, he noted only detainees in legal limbo whose charges lack sufficient evidence to prosecute. He told TIME that he expects at least 25 people will be released as early as next week. Still, some jirga delegates had lobbied for the unconditional release of all suspected Taliban prisoners, a prospect that no one has yet ruled out.
Prisoner releases would allow Karzai to win back some much-needed good faith in the eyes of disillusioned Afghans convinced his decisions are dictated by foreigners. According to Tom Ruttig, also with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, the speed with which he has raised the review committee suggests he might just mean business. "This has great potential if it is organized in such a way that does right by innocent Afghans," he says. But some contend that the process must become much more transparent than it is now. If it fails to be based on well-defined criteria that uphold the rule of law, Afghans will see it as a backdoor escape for criminals with money or good connections. Says Ahmad Nader Nadery, a commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission: "This could backfire and add to the culture of impunity that already exists."
This article was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.