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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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February 14th, 2014
04:49 PM ET

Analysis: Why would Afghanistan free prisoners that pose a threat to American forces?

By CNN Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper

(CNN) – At Bagram Airfield Thursday, the Afghan government freed 65 men accused of being dangerous insurgents. The U.S. military had intensely lobbied to keep the prisoners detained, arguing that the prisoners were directly tied to attacks killing or wounding 32 American or coalition personnel, and 23 Afghans – security personnel and civilians.

But those pleas were rebuffed, much to the disappointment of the White House.

"The Afghan government released detainees that we believe pose a continuing threat to coalition forces and to Afghans," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Friday.

The news had many people asking, why would the Afghan government free prisoners that pose a threat to our forces?

Well, here's what's really going on.

First, the U.S. detains prisoners under the war-time law of detention. Simply put, American forces want bad guys off the battlefield, so they don't pose a risk.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai sees these prisoners through the lens of criminal law, where there is a higher burden of evidence. An Afghan review board ruled that these men should be freed. A defiant Karzai, eager to assert Afghan sovereignty, supported the decision.

"If the Afghan judicial authorities decide to release a prisoner, it is of no concern to the U.S., and should be of no concern to the U.S. And I hope that the United States will stop harassing Afghanistan's procedures and judicial authority," Karzai said Thursday.

Second, there is the American lack of trust in Karzai, whose operating premise, U.S. officials say, is that there is no insurgency against the Afghan government. Karzai sees this as a war between the U.S. and Pakistani insurgents, or Afghans who have been radicalized because of the U.S.

The U.S. argued to Karzai that many of these 65 prisoners could have been prosecuted. But it's an open question as to whether Karzai takes seriously the threat posed by Afghans who have killed American troops, say U.S. officials.

"It's not just (the) United States force in Afghanistan who are now victims of this, but now so are the Afghan people because many of these individuals killed innocent Afghans as well. They're criminals, terrorists. They need to be detained, and they're not now," Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman, said Friday.

Finally, U.S. forces in Afghanistan are worried not only about what violence may be committed by these 65 freed prisoners – and 23 others who may soon be released – but how this policy will impact the field of battle.

What happens if Afghan soldiers have no confidence that someone they detain for being part of an ambush won't be quickly released back into battle by Karzai? Sources tell me U.S. officials in Afghanistan wonder: Will this soon result in mercenary action on the battlefield? Execution instead of detention?

Complicated questions. And as with all things in Afghanistan, who knows what the blow back will be or where it will go.

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