Thousands of prisoners – including senior al Qaeda and Taliban figures – remain in Afghanistan’s Bagram prison under the sole control of Afghan authorities, following the swift departure of US combat troops from the sprawling compound that houses it, Afghan and security officials told CNN Tuesday.
While a regional security official with knowledge of the US departure said there were 7,000 detainees still at Bagram Air Base, an Afghan ministry of defense spokesperson put the figure at 5,000. They consist of a couple of hundred criminals and the rest are terrorists, the spokesperson added.
The prisoners at Parwan Detention Facility, situated next to the base, include some “big names” from al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as some senior drug trafficking figures, the regional security official said..
The security official added that without US support the detention facility, located an hour north of Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul, was “vulnerable.”
After nearly 20 years in Afghanistan, the US military, at President Joe Biden’s direction, is in the final stages of withdrawing troops from the country, bringing America’s longest war to an end. During this time, the Bagram base was the hub of America’s operations.
Afghan forces were given control over the prison in 2013. However, as it remained next to the larger US-controlled complex it boasted additional security, until now.
The last US troops left the base on Friday. Some Afghan soldiers told CNN they only found out the Americans were leaving that very day.
Now some 3,000 Afghan security forces are settling into Bagram – and working out how the base might be used in the battle against a resurgent Taliban.
Since May, the Taliban claim to have taken control of some 150 districts across Afghanistan, in their southern heartlands of Kandahar and Helmand provinces – but also in the north of the country.
The Afghan defense ministry spokesperson confirmed the high-value nature of some of the prisoners at Bagram but denied they were vulnerable to a jailbreak.
“We have the ability to hold prisoners, we have enough troops to secure Bagram Air Base. We are not worried about the care of prisoners,” the spokesperson told CNN.
Three months after Biden announced his decision to draw down troops by September 11, the pace of withdrawal is catching some in Washington by surprise, yet there is no indication that Biden or any of his top aides are second-guessing the move.
Meanwhile the grim consequences of withdrawal are only just starting to become clear. And while the White House remains united behind the decision, across the government concerns are rising about the deteriorating security in Afghanistan, the pace of withdrawal and the many questions that are still unanswered about America’s long-term strategy.
Nick Paton Walsh reported from London, Sandi Sidhu reported from Kabul. CNN’s Tim Lister and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report