KANDAHAR: US military commanders believe Sardar Mohammad is a dangerous Taliban bomb-maker who has attacked foreign and Afghan soldiers. In April last year, US and Afghan forces captured Sardar and placed him in a military prison.

The Afghan government ordered Sardar and 64 other men to be released last month. A quiet man who says he is in his late teens, Sardar headed back to his village in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. Sardar was never a Taliban insurgent, his family and neighbours say. But thanks to his imprisonment and release, he is now a hero. “I hate what the Taliban stands for,” Sardar said.

President Hamid Karzai’s decision last month to release the disputed 65 prisoners is a sign of his growing eagerness to assert his independence from his Western backers. Twelve years after Washington and others helped him seize power and with just a few months left in his final term, the Afghan president seems to want to distance himself from his once-closest ally at every opportunity.

But the story of the released prisoners also illustrates just why the gap between Washington and Kabul has opened up so much. The conflicting allegations about Sardar and another detainee whose case Reuters examined show how Afghanistan and the foreign military forces stationed there so often speak past each other. As the US and Nato forces wind down their combat mission, it’s not just that the different sides disagree on the facts, but that they sometimes seem to be talking about different wars altogether.

The prisoners were part of a much larger group of more than 600 detainees transferred to Afghan authority last year, in what was seen as a milestone in the US and Nato withdrawal.

Afghan officials later released some of those prisoners without US objection. But the US believes the 65 who were released in February should be tried or investigated further. The Afghan government and Afghan judicial officials say the 65 had been wrongly imprisoned on charges that did not stand up to examination.

Abdul Shokor Dadras, a member of the Afghan Review Board (ARB), a government body set up to examine the cases against detainees transferred from US to Afghan custody, said the board, the attorney general and the country’s intelligence agency conducted investigations into the US allegations. “All three organisations repeatedly determined that there was no evidence to [adequately] prove these men’s guilt. So why do the Americans keep saying they have proof?” Dadras asked.

But US military officials say they have piles of evidence tying the 65 men to the Taliban, whom foreign and Afghan forces have fought since 2001, including forensic material and evidence of phone contacts. The officials say they provided the Afghan Review Board, the attorney general’s office, and the intelligence agency with “hundreds of pages” of “hard evidence”. Neither side was willing to share the full details of their evidence, though the Americans gave basic details.

“With no legal consequences, these individuals may return to the same criminal behaviour that led to their original capture,” US forces in Afghanistan said in a statement referring to the 65 prisoners.

Washington believes the decision to release the men is a sign of Kabul’s cosiness with the Afghan Taliban, with whom both the US and Kabul have sought to open peace talks.

Rejecting US criticism of the mass release, Karzai warned the US to “stop harrassing Afghanistan’s procedures” and judicial independence. “I hope the US will now begin to respect Afghan sovereignty,” said Karzai, who after more than a decade in power is to step down after April elections.

A summary of allegations against Sardar, prepared by US military forces in Kabul and seen by Reuters, states that he was “a Taliban IED specialist who builds and emplaces IEDs used in attacks against” Afghan and foreign forces in Kandahar Province.Among evidence the US military summary said it had against Sardar was a cell phone with Taliban contacts stored in its memory. The summary also said Sardar tested positive for residue of explosive materials.

“In a sworn, thumb-printed statement he admitted to having contact with Taliban commanders,” the summary reads. But Sardar said he didn’t understand the statement he signed. He said he had a contract to truck fuel and gravel to a US military base in Kandahar before his arrest, and felt betrayed after foreign forces raided his home last year. “They searched the whole house. They didn’t find anything but they still arrested me,” Sardar said several days after his release.After being taken to the same base he had once made deliveries to, Sardar said foreign troops questioned him about others from his village and then brought him a document he could not read. “They told me to put my thumb-print on the papers so I could be freed. But when I did, they sent me to Bagram prison,” he said.

The US military declined to share additional information about the specific allegations against Sardar or the circumstances in which he was captured. They did not confirm he had worked as a US contractor in Kandahar.

Police in Kandahar say Sardar had no record prior to his arrest by the US military. “Based on our documents, he is like ordinary Afghans: clean and crime-free,” said Abdul Wadood, police chief for Daman district, where Sardar’s home is located.

In the past, Afghan officials have generally dismissed US allegations of physical evidence. They say that detainees’ positive results in bomb residue tests, for example, could be invalid because residue could migrate from one person to another. “Afghanistan has been though a long war, and there are weapons all over. But we investigated accurately and sent those who were suspicious for further investigation,” the ARB’s Dadras said.

Another prisoner to be released last month was Sher Mohammad, also a native of Kandahar. Sher said that one night in late 2012 he awoke to the sound of a loudspeaker outside his home in the village of Seya Joi. A member of a military squad warned him that he was surrounded. “The Americans handcuffed me, tied a black cloth around my eyes and put a sack on my head,” he said. Sher believes he came under suspicion because he spent time at a madressah.

According to the US military summary of allegations US forces biometrically matched him to a bomb discovered the previous month by foreign forces in his home district. The US document alleges that Sher specialised in bombs that explode when stepped on or are driven over, and taught others how to use them. Sher rejected those allegations. He also said he was treated roughly during his imprisonment, first at the Kandahar military base and then in Bagram.

Haji Ghulam, a police commander for an area that includes Sher’s village, said that before forces pushed the Taliban out, Sher had been associated with the group through an uncle who was a Taliban member. But Khan said he knew Sher, and was confident that he was not an insurgent.

Back in his village, Sher said he was happy to be reunited with his family. “I am an innocent man. I farm my land and live an area that is under government control,” he said. “Anyone who is part of the Taliban has already fled from here.”—Reuters



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