WASHINGTON — The United States transferred four detainees from the Guantánamo Bay prison to Afghanistan late Friday, the Defense Department announced Saturday, fulfilling a request from the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, in what officials here characterized as a show of good will between the United States and the government in Kabul.
The four men will likely not be subjected to further detainment in Afghanistan, an Obama administration official said. The transfer brings the number of Afghans still held at the American military prison in Cuba to eight of the 132 detainees overall.
The transfer is the latest in a series of detainee releases and reflects a quickened pace, as President Obama has been pushing to make good on his goal of shutting the military prison at Guantánamo, a pledge that dates to the earliest days of his presidency. One administration official said more transfers are expected in the coming weeks.
Delays by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in signing off on transfers that had been approved by Mr. Obama’s national security staff contributed to tensions between the outgoing Pentagon chief and the White House, particularly with the national security adviser, Susan Rice. But Mr. Hagel, who resigned under pressure last month, has maintained all year that he would not be rushed in releasing prisoners.
In May, Ms. Rice sent Mr. Hagel a memo pressuring him to pick up the pace, and Mr. Hagel told reporters during a flight to Alaska at the time that he was in no hurry to approve deals. “My name is going on that document; that’s a big responsibility,” Mr. Hagel said. He added: “What I’m doing is, I’m taking my time. I owe that to the American people, to ensure that any decision I make is, in my mind, responsible.”
Some military officers have expressed worry that prisoners released from Guantánamo may return to the battlefield and harm American troops who remain in Afghanistan.
But the Pentagon statement released Saturday said that “the United States has full confidence in the ability of the Afghan government to mitigate any threats that may be posed by these individuals, and to ensure humane treatment. The Afghan government, including its judiciary and security forces, is fully prepared to repatriate these detainees in a responsible manner.”
The statement also noted that “over 90% of the Guantánamo detainees transferred during this administration are neither confirmed nor even suspected of having re-engaged in any terrorist or other hostile activity.”
Although Mr. Obama vowed in 2013 to revive his efforts to close the prison, the military in the first months of this year had only transferred one low-level detainee, back in March. Since November, though, 17 more have been transferred. There have now been 34 transfers under Mr. Hagel’s watch as defense secretary; by comparison, only four were transferred by Leon E. Panetta, the former defense secretary.
In its statement announcing the transfers, the Pentagon identified the four men as Shawali Khan, Khi Ali Gul, Abdul Ghani and Mohammed Zahir. The four men were “unanimously approved for transfer by the six departments and agencies” that review such cases, the Pentagon said.
The men arrived in Afghanistan on a United States military C-17 transport plane on Saturday morning, a Defense Department official said.
“This repatriation reflects the Defense Department’s continued commitment to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo in a responsible manner,” Paul Lewis, the Defense Department’s special envoy for the closure of Guantánamo, said in a statement.
All four men released have been considered to be low-level prisoners who pose little threat. Mr. Khan is believed to be 50 or 51 years old; the administration’s review board recommended his transfer in January 2010. Mr. Gul, also believed to be 50 or 51, and Mr. Ghani, believed to be 41 or 42, were all also recommended for transfer in January 2010.
The three men had been held for almost 12 years. It was unclear how long Mr. Zahir had been held.
The administration is hoping that if it can shrink the inmate population to below 100, Congress will revoke a law that bars the transfer of detainees into the country. The White House argues that closing Guantánamo would eliminate a propaganda symbol used by terrorists to generate anger at the United States. But many Republicans in Congress oppose the plan, arguing that housing prisoners on American soil would increase the risk of attacks here.
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