Afghan detainees present Nato states with dilemma

Camp Bastion
Image caption Britain says detention facilities are a vital part of the British military's protection measures

The British Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, says Britain operates a "temporary holding facility" at its base at Camp Bastion. He also insists that detention facilities are a vital part of the British military force's protection measures.

But the latest developments underline the fact that questions of how to deal with detainees have been among the most enduring controversies of the US-led military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq in the post-9-11 era.

In part in the wake of US detainee scandals, Washington and its allies have for some time sought not to hold on to detainees in Afghanistan for extended periods. But that practice in itself has been controversial.

And a number of Nato countries have faced legal challenges over the handover of detainees in Afghanistan to Afghan security forces because of fears of how they would be treated by the Afghan authorities.

The different security and legal pressures have presented Nato countries with an ongoing dilemma.

The Nato-led forces in Afghanistan adopted guidelines in late 2005 that detainees would be handed over to the Afghan authorities within 96 hours.

However, the guidelines also stated that, "in exceptional circumstances", the transfer could be delayed.

Image caption The US has formally handed over the detention facility at its Bagram base, which houses 3,000 detainees

Britain was among a number of Nato countries - including Canada and the Netherlands - which sought assurances from the Afghan authorities on the humane treatment of detainees once transferred, including the ability to monitor their circumstances.

Allegations of torture

However, critics have dismissed the value of such assurances. Some campaign groups have encouraged Nato countries to retain control of their own detainees until these issues have been sorted.

Campaign groups have regularly raised concerns about detainee transfers. In September 2011, the Nato-led force in Afghanistan suspended transfers of detainees to the Afghan authorities for four months following a report that prisoners faced torture from Afghan interrogators. The government denied the allegations.

Nato said it had carried out an extensive inspection of Afghan detainee facilities before resuming transfers. But Nato has also faced criticism from those who said 'the 96-hour-rule' was too short on security grounds.

The hope among Nato members has been that, as their combat role was reduced and the Afghan security services took a more front-line role, the Afghans would carry out more detentions of their own, Nato contingents fewer and fewer.

But the sensitivity of the whole issue has only increased as the Afghan authorities have moved to assert more sovereignty, and the plan for the withdrawal of Nato-led combat troops by the end of next year approaches.

'Conflicting legal pressures'

The Afghan government objected publicly when Britain announced that it was again suspending detainee transfers late last year. And its renewed those objections now.

In response to the latest news, Philip Hammond has highlighted what he sees as the conflicting legal pressures facing the British government, and says British and Afghan officials are close to being able to announce an acceptable solution.

He said Britain would "like nothing more" than to be able to hand over the detainees, and that the total of up to 90 currently being held by the British is many more than the 20 or so Britain would detain in normal circumstances.

But critics says the British should have done more to resolve the issue, and particularly the question marks over the behaviour of the Afghan intelligence services.

The issue of authority and control over detainees has been one of the most sensitive in US-Afghan negotiations in preparation for the end of the current Nato-led mission.

The United States has now formally handed over the detention facility at its Bagram base, which houses some 3,000 detainees, reportedly only after receiving private assurances from the Afghan authorities over the continued detention, for now, of individuals considered enduring security threats.

Some see the issues surrounding the transfer of detainees as part of wider questions over whether the Afghan authorities will be ready to assume full responsibility once the Nato-led mission ends. That looming deadline also adds urgency to the questions of resolving these issues.

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