The Taliban Catch-and-Release Scheme

12/03/2010 03:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reuters' recent report that Afghan security forces are systematically freeing captured high-level Taliban leaders in exchange for financial and political payoffs was familiar to me -- it's a story I started hearing over a year ago when I was reporting from Afghanistan.

Emma Graham-Harrison's article discusses a "catch-and-release" system that is so well organized that the Taliban have a standing "Freedom" committee to handle the bribery negotiations with government officials. The officials authorizing and facilitating the releases include President Hamid Karzai and his half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, a Kandahar powerbroker with reported ties to the drug trade, the CIA and the Taliban. To the frustration of the U.S.-led ISAF military coalition, many of the released insurgent leaders quickly resume fighting.

It was a story I began hearing in 2009 when I was embedded with U.S. troops in insurgency-wracked eastern Afghanistan. "Catch-and-release" was a phrase that could get a table of soldiers at the DFAC dining hall in a snarl. One soldier sardonically grumbled to me that captured Taliban were back fighting his unit almost before he and his buddies could return to base. Since then I've been absorbing the literature and interviewing civilian and military intelligence, detention and rule-of-law experts in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Afghanistan, trying to understand this capture-and-release business and how it fits into my larger investigation into the culture of corruption that is gripping Afghanistan and the U.S. war effort.

While many of my sources, particularly those still working in Afghanistan, need to remain anonymous for reasons of safety and cannot be quoted here, their information and insights have allowed me to peer behind the curtain of this pernicious trade.

The catch-and-release system has long been known to ISAF, the international coalition battling the Afghan insurgency. In 2007, Canada's Minister of National Defence Gordon O'Connor told a national Canadian television audience that the Afghan prisons "had quite a revolving door system."

A cable I found among the recent Wikleaks releases reveals Washington's concerns about the revolving door. In August 2009, U.S. Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan, Francis J. Ricciardone, cabled Washington, "On numerous occasions we have emphasized with Attorney General [Muhammad Ishaq] Aloko the need to end interventions by him and President Karzai, who both authorize the release of detainees pre-trial and allow dangerous individuals to go free without ever facing an Afghan court."

The cable noted a dramatic increase in pre-trial releases after April 2007, when President Karzai established the Aloko Detainee Commission. Prior to the Commission's establishment, there was one pre-trial release in 2007. By 2008, the number released from the Afghan National Detention Facility ballooned to 104, and by August 2009 there'd already been 45 releases.

Many of the insurgents released from Afghan custody were high-value detainees held by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's intelligence service. A University of Ottawa law professor and detainee rights activist, Amir Attaran, told me that selling high-level detainee releases is a good business for the NDS. "The big bad Taliban buy their way out. The NDS guys are stunningly corrupt. They simply let the high-value Taliban walk--then torture the low-level Taliban to extort money from the families."

The Reuters article indicated Ahmad Wali Karzai (or AWK as ISAF notates him) spent tens of thousands of dollars to secure the release of Anwar Shah Agha, an important Taliban commander who directed attacks west of Kandahar to Herat. After Agha's capture in Kandahar in May 2009, AWK got to work, getting Anwar Shah Agha transferred to Kabul, where he was released less than a year later in March 2010. The article stated that Anwar Shah Agha "has since returned to the battlefield."

Reports by The New York Times, ABC News, The Washington Times and The Times of London on Ahmad Wali Karzai paint a picture of a corrupt kingpin in the opium-soaked Kandahar heartland of the Taliban. The recent WikiLeaks disclosures show AWK's extensive connections to the CIA, long involved in the drug trade in the Golden Triangle, Latin America and Afghanistan, as historian Alfred W. McCoy has documented in his magisterial The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Trade.

To combat the catch-and-release system with improved Afghan detention operations, the U.S. established Joint Task Force 435 in September 2009, which became the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force (CJIATF) 435 a year later. According to a CJIATF 435 document, the task force is attempting to help the Karzai government build "self-sustaining Afghan National Detention and Rule of Law institutions that are compliant with Afghan and international law."

Brigadier General Mark S. Marks is the CJIATF 435 Deputy Commanding General. "He has a whole plan for this rule of law," Daphne Eviatar, Senior Associate of Law and Security Program at Human Rights First in New York, told me. "The idea is good, to promote trainers, mentors, so the U.S. can hand over some of the detention to the Afghans -- though the U.S. still wants to continue to hold some of the detention." Many of the Afghan detainees the U.S. wants to hold are on NATO's infamous "kill or capture" JPEL list that targets over 2,000 top insurgents. Though the U.S. is trying to transform the Afghan judiciary, international observers doubt CJIATF 435's ability to reform the deeply rooted Taliban-NDS release racket.

As U.S. and ISAF officials grapple with the pre-trial release issues, they face a complicated problem. Allowing corrupt Afghan government officials to continue the catch-and-release trade can strengthen the insurgency. But disempowering the Afghan government can prove equally disastrous. "The ultimate challenge for counterinsurgency is stuck between building the right system for the long-term -- basic security forces or the judiciary -- at the same time dealing with a situation where rapid demonstrable results are the rule of the day. You're trying to do contradictory things here," Nathan Hughes, Director of Military Analysis at STRATFOR, a global intelligence company, explained to me. He concluded, "You're stuck with the partner you have."

And a flawed, duplicitous partner, the current Afghan administration is indeed. The recently revealed "catch-and-release" business is just another example of the culture of corruption that has enveloped the war effort, endangering U.S. and NATO troops -- and verily the entire outcome of the war. General David Petraeus has repeatedly termed the legitimacy of the host nation government as the "north star" of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. If that's the case, we are being led far off course by a false reading.