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U.S. delays transfer of major prison to Afghans from 2012 to 2014

The United States will remain in control of Afghanistan's highest-profile prison well beyond January 2012, missing a key milestone in the plan to transfer judicial and detention operations to Afghans, U.S. military officials say.

The transfer of the prison and its growing population of detainees had been regarded as a critical marker of the war's endgame -- a sign that Afghan officials are ready to inherit institutions essential to the nation's future.

But U.S. officials decided that the Afghan legal system is still too weak to permit the hand-over of the Parwan Detention Center, even after the United States spent millions attempting to improve the country's judiciary. The United States will not be able to relinquish authority at Parwan until at least 2014, just as the last foreign troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan.

"At this point, the Afghans don't have the legal framework or the capacity to deal with violence being inflicted on the country by the insurgency," said one U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The existence of the U.S. military prison near Bagram Airfield, about 30 miles north of Kabul, has long been seen by Afghans as a sign of imperial overreach, and it has been singled out for criticism by President Hamid Karzai.

The U.S. military has detained suspected insurgents at the prison for nearly a decade. Most have been kept without trial, with less than a third of the detainees having been handed over for prosecution to an Afghan-run court.

The prison population has grown rapidly as the U.S. military has surged its operations in Afghanistan: Military officials say that over the past three years, the number of detainees has tripled. Parwan now holds 2,600 inmates, ranging from high-profile insurgents to those who have played a more peripheral role in the conflict.

The transfer of the prison -- an agglomeration of cinder-block rooms and cellblocks built in 2009 to replace an older, dilapidated facility -- was supposed to be part of a broader transition to Afghan control that has begun this summer. Seven cities and provinces have been formally transferred to Afghan security forces in the past month.

A transition at Parwan was expected to hold special symbolic value: Afghan defense officials argue that the Taliban has successfully used the prison for propaganda to galvanize insurgents, citing reports of harsh interrogation methods. An Army investigation into the deaths of two detainees in 2002 uncovered evidence of prisoners being chained to the ceiling by their wrists and being severely beaten by guards.

"There's no question that taking control and bringing these courts within Afghan law will be a significant step," said Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai, the deputy minister of justice.

But as the number of detainees at Parwan continues to grow, U.S. officials say that giving Afghans control over the fates of suspected insurgents would allow dangerous Taliban fighters to slip through the cracks of an undeveloped legal system.

The inability of Afghan judges to handle classified intelligence is one of many problems delaying Parwan's hand-over, according to U.S. officials who say they would be willing to share such information if the proper Afghan procedures existed.

The Afghan legal code -- crafted in 1976, during a time of relative peace -- lacks the capacity to deal with the demands of wartime criminal justice, officials said.

Detainees must be indicted within three days of being arrested. Forensic evidence is rarely considered. And the accused must be tried within the province where he is apprehended, even though many provincial courts are notoriously corrupt and insecure.

To develop judicial capacity both in Parwan and beyond, the United States has helped train a slew of Afghan judges and attorneys, aiming to develop institutions that have long languished due to political gridlock and a lack of funding.

Efforts to address the shortcomings of the legal code in parliament or through a presidential decree have stalled.

Some Afghans, including Karzai, remain eager to expedite the transition process at Parwan and could still push for an earlier transfer than 2014. U.S. officials, though, say that significant reforms must occur before such a hand-over occurs.