OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Karzai releases 65 detainees linked to troop deaths

Topline: Over strong objections from the U.S., Afghanistan released 65 detainees on Thursday the U.S. said had killed or injured Afghan and coalition forces. 

"They have killed Afghan men, women and children. More than two dozen of the individuals released were linked to the production or emplacement of improvised explosive devices, the number one killer of Afghan civilians," U.S. Forces-Afghanistan said in a statement. 

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai responded that the U.S. was “harassing” his nation’s judicial authority over the release of the detainees, and that the U.S. must “respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty.” 

"Afghanistan is a sovereign country. If Afghanistan judiciary authorities decide to release prisoners, it is of no concern to the United States,” Karzai said in Ankara, Turkey, according to The Associated Press, where he was attending a summit between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey.

NATO and U.S. military officials said the release of the 65 individuals posed a threat to U.S., coalition and Afghan troops.

The 65 are directly linked to attacks killing or wounding 32 U.S. or coalition forces, and 23 Afghan forces or civilians, said U.S. officials, who have warned that they now could be targeted on the battlefield. 

Earlier in the week, the U.S. released evidence against four of the detainees, including who one was a suspected Taliban explosives expert, another who had facilitated rocket attacks against Afghan and coalition forces, and two who were members of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group that has worked with al Qaeda. 

The Washington Post reported that six former Afghan Guantanamo Bay detainees have returned to the fight in Afghanistan. 

US carrier eases tensions in Persian Gulf: The U.S. Navy has reduced its carrier presence in the Persian Gulf as the Obama administration seeks to complete a nuclear deal with Iran.

The Navy denies it has reduced its strength in the strategically vital waterway, let alone done so to help diplomatic efforts, and it points to an increase in the number of smaller ships that are regularly patrolling at close quarters with Iranian vessels.

But records show that the U.S.S. Harry Truman, now the sole aircraft carrier in the region, has spent more time outside the Persian Gulf in the last six months than inside it. 

A Navy source familiar with the issue said the Truman isn’t spending as much time in the Persian Gulf as its predecessors, and that this is intended to give space for negotiators to work on the nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is seeking a final nuclear deal with Iran after reaching an interim accord in November. Congress is fiercely debating whether to threaten Iran with additional sanctions if it fails to comply with the interim deal, which eased some sanctions in exchange for Iran’s halting of elements of its nuclear program. The Obama administration opposes any new sanctions.

“A carrier is an effective symbol and instrument of national power. Its mere presence is a deterrence to bad actors and bad behavior, and if necessary, it is an instrument of force,” said Retired Vice Adm. Peter Daly, CEO of the United States Naval Institute. 

A Navy official speaking on background played down the fact that the Truman is spending less time in the Persian Gulf even as he acknowledged the Navy is working to defuse tensions in the region.

“Our goal out here is to do everything we can to prevent miscalculations, and not pressurize a situation that could easily be pressurized,” the Navy official said. 

“We’re doing a lot out there ... it’s not just this stare-down across the way with the Iranians.”

Senate will return to Sanders veterans bill: Congress is on recess next week, but when it returns on Feb. 24 it will take up the omnibus veterans bill from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

With the Senate passing a repeal of the $6 billion military pension cuts on Wednesday, a chunk of Sanders’s larger veterans measure has already been passed.

That’s likely to lower the $24 billion cost of the legislation. But Republicans are still objecting to the bill using funds for the wars overseas, Overseas Contingency Operations, to pay for most of the bill.

Those funds are not subject to the discretionary spending caps, and Republicans say that the funding mechanism is little more than a gimmick.

Republicans are readying their own alternative to Sanders’s bill.

While the Senate passed the pension cuts repeal, Sanders said it did not go far enough because it didn’t help future service members, which his bill would do.

US ship waiting for Syrian chemical weapons: The U.S. ship tasked with destroying Syria’s chemical weapons is now ready and waiting for Syria to comply with its end of a deal to dismantle its chemical weapons program. 

The MV Cape Ray reached Spain on Thursday, where it will dock at the U.S. Naval Station Rota, until all the chemical weapons material has been delivered from Syria to the Italian port Gioia Tauro. 

Once that happens, the cargo ship will move to Gioia Tauro to take the chemicals on board for destruction.

The ship will then sail out to the Mediterranean Sea, where the destruction will take place. The mission is expected take as many as nine months as two hydrolysis units on the ship neutralize hundreds of tons of chemical weapons at sea. 

Syria has been missing deadlines for removing its chemical weapons. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Wednesday that Syria had shipped only 11 percent of its chemical weapons out of the country — missing its Feb. 5 deadline to get all of its chemical weapons out of Syria.

“We stand ready to fulfill our contributions to this international effort; it is time for Syria to live up to their obligations to the international community,” Defense Dept Spokesman Col. Steve Warren said in a statement Thursday. 

 

In Case You Missed It:

— Report: Intelligence community can’t keep track of its contractors

— NATO slams Afghan prisoner release

— Reid sets up veterans bill, judicial nominee votes

— Israel says 2014 is Dems' year

— Iranian: Sanctions brought us to 'tears'

 

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