Afghanistan War
An American soldier's alleged massacre of 16 Afghan civilians has inflamed anger against U.S. troops at a time when the American public -- increasingly including Republicans -- is tiring of America's decade-long presence in Afghanistan. REUTERS

For several years the United States has been releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of a negotiating strategy with insurgent groups, a clandestine program in which U.S. officials have freed sometimes notorious Taliban fighters outside of the traditional military legal system, according to an investigation by The Washington Post.

U.S. officials did not specify how many prisoners have been released from the Parwan detention center under the secretive program, the newspaper reports, although they did say it was uncommon. Although the system has reportedly been in operation for a number of years, officials would not confirm when it began.

The goal of the so-called strategic release program is simple: to suppress violence in areas of Afghanistan where insurgent forces are strong and NATO forces are unable ensure security. The Post described the program as a live diplomatic channel allowing American forces to use the prisoners as bargaining chips. Although the detainees reportedly must agree to abstain from violent acts as a condition of their release, officials would not tell the paper if anyone released under the exchange has later returned to attack the U.S.

Releases have come amid efforts by the Obama administration to end the nation's decade-long war in Afghanistan. Last week, President Obama made a surprise trip to the country, where he announced U.S. forces and its allies are following through on a plan to hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan government by 2014.

Unlike the traditional NATO-sponsored reintegration program for released prisoners, the detainees freed under the strategic release program are not required to formally sever ties with insurgent groups.

According to the report, U.S. military officials weigh the prisoner exchanges on a case-by-case basis, weighting the trade-off value and the perceived sincerity of insurgent commanders, who promise violence in their district will decrease if certain detainees are released from Parwan.

The Afghans have come to us with information that might strengthen the reconciliation process, U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker told The Washington Post. Many times we do act on it.

Unlike at Guantanamo Bay military prison, releasing detainees from Parwan does not require congressional approval and can be done covertly. The selected are also able to circumvent the prison's official judicial review board, with their release instead approved directly by the United States' top commander and top military lawyer in Afghanistan.

The Post broke the story the same weekend five detainees -- including the self-confessed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- were formally arraigned in military court at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba for their alleged roles in the plot.

The high-profile al Qaeda detainees, who face the death penalty if convicted, deferred entering a plea. A trial is not expected to begin for at least a year.