McCain, Graham press Karzai to hold off on prisoner release

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday, urging him to stop the release of prisoners that the United States says are a threat to security.

The defense hawks also pressed Karzai to sign the U.S.-Afghan bilateral security agreement, which the Afghan president says can wait until after the country’s presidential election in the spring.

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Afghanistan’s plan to release hundreds of prisoners from a Bagram detention facility handed over to the Afghans last year is the latest in a string of episodes threatening to damage U.S.-Afghan relations.

It began with the Obama administration warning it could withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 if the bilateral security agreement is not soon signed.

On Thursday, McCain and Graham said that releasing dangerous prisoners would further harm the relationship, according to Reuters. But they did not indicate it would prompt the U.S. to move forward with the “zero option" of pulling all forces.

"If these releases go ahead it will do irreparable damage to the relationship," Graham told reporters at a press conference in Kabul.

McCain said Thursday that the senators’ meeting with Karzai helped narrow the differences over the security pact, saying he believed it could be signed “sooner rather than later.”

"We're going to have to just wait and see what happens ... we can't go any further in our comments except that it does damage," McCain said.

"As a result of our long meeting with President Karzai we have narrowed those differences and I believe we can look forward to signing the Bilateral Security Agreement ... sooner rather than later."

The Obama administration considers 88 of the roughly 650 prisoners poised to be released security threats, according to Reuters, saying they are responsible for the deaths of 57 Afghans and 60 NATO troops.

Afghanistan says there is not enough evidence to keep the prisoners detained.

The United States is expected to keep between 8,000 and 10,000 service members in Afghanistan after 2014, when the U.S. will hand off security control to the Afghans, if it can get a security agreement signed.

Karzai has said the agreement should be signed after his successor is selected in the spring elections, and called the zero option an empty threat.

The Obama administration had demanded that Karzai sign the security agreement before the end of 2013, but backed off that deadline after Karzai did not budge.

Both McCain and Graham have warned that removing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan is a bad idea, pointing to the violence in Iraq after the United States withdrew in 2011.