WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Saturday that four Afghans from the Guantanamo Bay detention center have been returned to their home country in what U.S. officials are citing as a sign of their confidence in new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Obama administration officials said they worked quickly to fulfil the request from Ghani, in office just three months, to return the four — long cleared for release — as a kind of reconciliation and mark of improved U.S.-Afghan relations.
There is no requirement that the Afghan government further detain the men, identified as Mohammed Zahir, Shawali Khan, Abdul Ghani and Khi Ali Gul. Afghanistan's High Peace Council, a government-appointed group, confirmed the transfer, but did not identify the men, saying that the four "will be reunited soon with their families."
The council also requested the repatriation of the eight Afghans who are among the 132 detainees remaining at Guantanamo.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the Afghan capital, said in a statement that it had "full confidence in the Afghan government's ability to mitigate any threats these individuals may pose and to ensure that they are given humane treatment." The transfer "demonstrates Afghan sovereignty and U.S. trust in the strength of Afghan government institutions," according to the statement.
The move is the latest in a series of transfers during the past two months. President Barack Obama has been pushing to reduce the number of detainees as he tries to make progress toward his goal of closing the globally condemned detention center for suspected terrorists.
Administration officials, speaking on a condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, say more transfers are expected in the coming weeks.
Guantanamo now holds the lowest number of detainees since shortly after it opened nearly 13 years ago in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Those remaining include 64 approved for transfer.
Although the four Afghans have long been approved for transfer, the move sparked debate in Washington. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did not immediately sign off after Gen. John F. Campbell, the top American commander in Afghanistan, raised concerns they could pose a danger to troops in the country. Administration officials say Campbell and all military leaders on the ground have now screened the move.
"The United States is grateful to the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," the Pentagon said in a statement. "The United States coordinated with the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures."
One administration official involved in the review said most, if not all, the terrorism accusations against the men had been discarded and each is considered a low-level operative at best.
After Hagel gave Congress classified notification of the transfer, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee raised objections.
"Despite my objection based on concerns that this transfer was completely irresponsible, the president has seen fit to send four terrorists back to Afghanistan. Clearly the safety of our troops still serving in Afghanistan could not have been a consideration in this decision," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said in a statement Saturday.
Before he can close Guantanamo, Obama faces the challenge of working out what to do with any detainees who aren't cleared for transfer — either because the United States wants to prosecute them or continuing holding them because they are considered too dangerous to release. Congress has passed legislation blocking detainees from coming to the U.S. for detention or trial.
Obama issued a statement Friday objecting to congressional restrictions on closing Guantanamo. He said shutting down the detention facility was a "national imperative." He also noted that the U.S. recently ended its operations of prisons for suspected terrorists in Afghanistan by releasing the final three detainees from the Parwan Detention Center.
"Yet halfway around the world, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains open for the 13th consecutive year, costing the American people hundreds of millions of dollars each year and undermining America's standing in the world," Obama said.
He added, "The continued operation of this detention facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists."
Some Guantanamo opponents are questioning whether the United States has the authority to continue detaining prisoners captured in the Afghan conflict after the end of combat operations at year's end.
"We will certainly expect to see legal challenges to continued detention at the end of hostilities, which is just in a couple weeks," said J. Wells Dixon, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. Dixon has assisted on the case of Khan and said he hopes Khan can reunite with his father and brother after nearly 13 years at Guantanamo.
"He was sent to Guantanamo on the flimsiest of allegations that were implausible on their face and never fully investigated," Dixon argued. "He never should have been there."
Associated Press writer Lynne O'Donnell in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.