The U.S. and Afghanistan took a major step forward, signing an agreement that will transfer control of its main detention facility - where U.S. troops burned Korans last month -- to Afghan security forces within six months.
The deal, signed in Kabul by Gen. John Allen, head of the International Security Force in Afghanistan, and the country's Minister of Defense Abdul Rahim Wardak calls for the first batch of 500 detainees to be transferred to Afghan authority within 45 days. There are just over 3,000 Afghan detainees being held at Parwan.
The handover of the facility is an effort to rebuild an increasingly strained relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan.
"This MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) illustrates our commitment to Afghan sovereignty," said U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
The control of detention facilities has been a contentious issue, straining U.S.-Afghan ties in recent months. Many Afghans consider it a question of national sovereignty. In a still largely tribal and traditional society, placing Afghans -- criminals or otherwise -- under foreign authority is seen as particularly humiliating.
Those anti-American feelings erupted two weeks ago, after U.S. troops burned copies of the Koran at the U.S.-run Parwan facility, near Bagram Air Base US officials from Gen. Allen to President Obama apologized for the incident. Officials insisted it was done unintentionally and ordered a military investigation.
Still, deadly riots erupted across the country, leaving dozens of Afghans dead in the bloody aftermath. Both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the country's powerful Ulema Council demanded the U.S. speed up its plans to transfer control of the country's prisons, saying the incident could have been avoided if Afghans were in charge.
A carefully worded statement from ISAF today singled out the Parwan detention facility, saying it would be transferred to Afghan security forces as soon as an Afghan commander is appointed. Karzai had set a deadline of today for control of the prison to be handed over.
"This is an important step," General Allen told reporters shortly before signing the agreement. "It is a step forward in our strategic partnership negotiations."
According to U.S. officials, there are roughly 50 non-Afghan detainees currently being held in Parwan. Under the terms of the new deal, those detainees would remain in the custody of the United States.
U.S. officials had been hesitant to hand over control of the prisons, arguing that Afghan security forces were ill-equipped and un-prepared for managing the facilities on their own. There were also concerns that Afghan detainees would suffer mistreatment and abuse at the hands of Afghan jailers.
Today's agreement alleviates some of those concerns, by stipulating that U.S. advisers will retain access to the detainees after the transfer, to monitor for signs of mistreatment. The Red Cross and the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission will have similar access, ensuring that detainees are given their rights according to the Geneva Conventions.
Today's deal is seen as a major advance in repairing U.S.-Afghan relations, as both sides work towards a strategic pact that will govern relations between the two countries once the U.S. withdraws its troops in 2014. Where this leaves Karzai's other demand -- that the U.S. halt its night raids in Afghan villages -- remains unclear. U.S. army officials maintain the raids target only insurgents, but Karzai says innocent Afghan civilians are often rounded up, detained, and suffer from collateral damage.