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Originally published January 9, 2014 at 6:35 PM | Page modified January 10, 2014 at 6:17 AM

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Defying U.S., Karzai orders release of Afghan prisoners

President Hamid Karzai’s decision threatened to plunge relations to a new state of crisis even as a broader, long-term security agreement between the two countries has been held up for weeks.

The New York Times

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KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on Thursday ordered the release of dozens of prisoners accused of having American blood on their hands, intensifying his showdown with Obama administration officials after weeks of confrontation and warnings that he risked losing U.S. troop support.

The move threatened to plunge relations to a new state of crisis even as a broader, long-term security agreement between the two countries has been held up for weeks.

A U.S. official said late Thursday that the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, James Cunningham, reported in an internal cable that he did not think Karzai would agree to sign the accord before Afghanistan’s elections in April. News of the cable was first reported online by The Washington Post.

The Obama administration wants the agreement to be signed soon so that the U.S. and its NATO allies, who are pursuing a similar agreement, will have time to make plans for a post-2014 force. “There is not a lot of time left before that planning has to begin,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said earlier Thursday.

U.S. officials have said that the prisoners to be released are dangerous Taliban militants and that freeing them without trial would violate an agreement on detainees reached last year.

That detention authority deal was considered a prerequisite to the security pact, known as the bilateral security agreement (BSA), which would allow for a continued U.S. troop presence and aid past 2014.

Still, just a week after some U.S. officials insisted such a prisoner release would prove that Karzai could not be trusted to honor a security deal, the initial U.S. response Thursday was cautious. Officials were critical of the release, but careful to say the move would not harm the security deal and they were still trying to get a full accounting for the decision.

“We don’t tie it to BSA,” one Obama administration official said, referring to the security agreement and noting it was a “separate deal,” while speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The suddenly tempered language from the administration raised the prospect that Karzai had again called a U.S. bluff, or that the Americans might be sending mixed signals about the White House’s intent.

On Thursday, Afghan officials said that in ordering the release of 72 detainees, they were following legal procedure because neither U.S. nor Afghan security officials could produce evidence that the men had been involved in killing troops. “We have the right to release the men,” said Aimal Faizi, Karzai’s spokesman.

He characterized some of the evidence against the prisoners as being nothing more than fingerprints on guns, noting that almost everyone in Afghanistan owned a gun.

Faizi said the timing of the release would be up to prison officials and the three-member Afghan detention commission that recommended the move. The commission could not be reached for comment.

Karzai, according to an Afghan familiar with the president’s thinking, saw freeing the prisoners as a way to accomplish two goals: He could curry favor with the Taliban in hopes of bringing the insurgents to talks, and he could punish the United States for what he considers its insincere effort to initiate peace talks.

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