On Thursday, Afghanistan freed 65 suspected Taliban militants from prison over vehement objections from the United States.

How will the prisoner release affect U.S. relations with Afghanistan?

This type of public spat can only complicate matters at a critical time. The two countries are at loggerheads over a security agreement that would keep a small contingent of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan after 2014. The United States has largely abandoned hope that it will reach a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government before President Hamid Karzai is replaced after elections in April. But the White House has said that the longer this drags on, the more likely a full withdrawal becomes.

Why weren’t the prisoners charged?

U.S. officials, who have spent millions of dollars building up Afghanistan’s rule of law sector, were hoping they would. They presented what they called irrefutable evidence that the men were dangerous and guilty of terrorist attacks. The Afghan government was not convinced. Afghanistan’s court system remains heavily reliant on confessions, rather than physical evidence. Cases frequently are resolved in politically expedient ways, or after bribes are paid. Some Afghan analysts suspect that by releasing the prisoners, Karzai is seeking to bolster his image as a sovereign leader who is not afraid to stand up to his American patrons. His motivation, they say, could be to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Didn’t something similar happen at the end of the Iraq War?

Yes. Several detainees who had American blood on their hands were released by the Iraqi government during the final months of the war. The process there was at times contentious, but it didn’t spark a public confrontation until after the 2011 withdrawal. U.S. officials protested in 2012 when the Iraqi government released a Hezbollah commander the U.S. military accused of major attacks against its troops. In that case, several appeals U.S. officials made to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went unheeded.

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