WASHINGTON -- At the Pentagon, a top general says America "absolutely" expects to be given custody of senior Taliban officials like the former justice minister. Hours later, an Afghan commander says he has set the minister free, to face no punishment.
Conflicts with local Afghan commanders are rising, but the United States is concerned about pushing too hard in response. That could cause problems for Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, who can't always control what the regional warlords do.
U.S. reaction was muted Wednesday at the release of several high-ranking Taliban, including the former justice minister, Nooruddin Turabi, responsible for some of the harshest Taliban rules.
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, said officials were still trying to confirm the reports. "If this is true, we would expect that they would take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that these folks are not left on their own," Lapan said.
The day before, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers had said of Turabi and others, "Obviously, individuals of that stature in the Taliban leadership are of great interest to the United States, and we would expect that they would be turned over, absolutely."
U.S. officials have said repeatedly that Karzai is cooperating closely, and has agreed to turn over any Taliban or al-Qaida fighters the United States seeks.
But the U.S.-backed prime minister has little control over warlords like Gov. Gul Agha in Kandahar, whose men apparently released Turabi.
"This shows the real limitations of fighting wars when you rely on local ground forces to be your proxies. They simply don't have the same goals we do," said Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution.
Jalal Khan, a close associate of Gul Agha, told The Associated Press that the Taliban leaders who surrendered had received general amnesty, on condition they swear to obey Karzai's government, which they did.
"From the very start we have said when they surrender, and give up their guns and their cars, they will be given amnesty," Khan said.
A spokesman for Karzai's Foreign Ministry said the government was trying to determine who all seven men freed in Kandahar were, whether the decision to let them go was appropriate, and whether they are war criminals.
Karzai has indicated that he "is very committed to the fact that these people should be in the custody of the United States," said Ali Jalali, a former Afghan fighter who has advised the U.S. Army. "However, he has to work with all these networks in the country: the local strongmen and the tribal chiefs."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this week that Karzai is offering incentives to get warlords to give up weapons and cooperate with his central government. But for now, Karzai has few troops and little control outside Kabul.
Some question whether the United States should bother pursuing Taliban leaders, and instead focus on al-Qaida, the fighters most closely tied to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. The Taliban and their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, are evil but were essentially hijacked by bin Laden's organization, said Charlie Wilson, a former congressman active in providing U.S. assistance to Afghan mujahedeen a decade ago.
By themselves, the Taliban never would have tried to organize terror attacks against America -- and thus are little future threat, Wilson said. "There is a view, I'm not saying it's a popular view, that Mullah Omar and the rest of the Taliban don't make that much difference," Wilson said. "They really are irrelevant."