The US military has signed a last-minute agreement to transfer its main detention centre in Afghanistan to Afghan control in six months, a key step toward a long-term pact on the US military presence.
The deal removes a sticking point that had threatened to derail the partnership between the two countries and has been critical to defining the US role as it draws down troops there.
The agreement extends a deadline set by Afghan president Hamid Karzai for the transfer of some 3,000 Afghan detainees at the Parwan facility, a US-run prison adjoining its Bagram military base outside the capital Kabul, but also for the first time spells out an American commitment to a solid transfer date.
Under the deal, the US will still have access to Parwan and will be able to block the release of detainees it thinks should continue to be held.
The US and Afghanistan have been in negotiations for months to formalise a role for US forces after Nato’s scheduled transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government at the end of 2014.
But talks had stalled over the issues of detainee control and night raids by international forces in Afghan villages.
“The signing of this memorandum is an important step forward in our strategic partnership negotiations,” said General John Allen, the commander of Nato and US forces in Afghanistan.
He and defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak signed the memorandum at a ceremony in the capital.
According to the document, an Afghan general will be formally in charge of Parwan, but a joint US-Afghan commission will decide on any detainee releases.
The joint commission will have to come to a consensus on any such decision, according to US officials involved in the negotiations – a setup that will essentially give US officials power to block any releases they do not agree with.
The officials said the detainees will be transferred to Afghan control gradually over the six months, with the first 500 expected to be transferred within 45 days. The US government had already handed over a few hundred detainees to the Afghans.
The deal does not apply to the approximately 50 non-Afghans at Parwan, who will remain in US custody.
The officials also said they still need to work out how new detainees will be handled. Currently, the US military assesses whether people captured on the battlefield are a threat and then either lets them go, hands them over to Afghan authorities or sends them to Parwan.
The US also operates what it has described as temporary holding pens for gathering intelligence from detainees in Afghanistan, though officials have confirmed anonymously that some detainees have been held at these centres for up to nine weeks.
The agreement does not appear to address these sites.