MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS The US military is trying to turn its detention system in Afghanistan, long a public-relations disaster, into an asset in its campaign to win over the public. In the year since American commanders shuttered the infamous Bagram Airfield prison and opened a new facility nearby, they have released hundreds of low-threat detainees, hoping they would spread word of fair treatment and improved conditions in US hands. We treat them as well as we can to keep them from taking up arms against us again, says Maj. Gen. Marjan Shuja, the top Afghan officer in the US-led detention task force. Were trying to get their confidence. US commanders say the contrast is sharp between the old Bagram detention center and the new one, called the Detention Center in Parwan. There had been numerous reports of abuse at Bagram and, the US military acknowledges, young men who had committed no offense were sometimes held there for long periods. In 2002, two Afghan men died at the hands of US forces in Bagram after repeated beatings, military coroners determined. Seven soldiers were charged. A Defense Department spokesman said there was no systematic torture or abuse at Bagram and said military authorities punished those who violated policies prohibiting detainee abuse. The military planned the new detention center as a symbolic break from the past. They named it after Parwan, the province it resides in, though the facility is adjacent to Bagram Airfield, site of the old prison. The new facilitywhich now holds around 1,550 detaineesoffers extensive medical care and classes in literacy, agriculture, bread-making and tailoring. Families are allowed to visit; there is a playground for the detainees children, albeit one surrounded by razor wire. Relatives who cant make the trip chat by video conference. More than 2,300 outsiders have visited the facility, including diplomats, journalists and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Tensions still run high inside the new facility, according to military guards and commanders. Guards wear goggles around the 30-man cells; on occasion, detainees throw plastic water bottles filled with urine and feces at the guards. The detainees mockingly call this baksheesh, a gift or bribe, according to guards. Detainees sometimes shout racial epithets at black guards and sexist comments at female ones. We have hard-core detainees who are sentenced to 15 or 17 years and say theyll still keep fighting, says Gen. Shuja. US and Afghan authorities have released some 675 detainees since the beginning of last year. The military says fewer than 2 per cent of those released are recaptured, although that figure is similar to the rate under the old detention system, according to Vice Adm. Robert Harward, commander of the detention task force. Adm. Harward says that suggests the overwhelming majority of released detainees dont return to the battlefield. Military survey data, however, show some 85% of released detainees cant find work, a foreboding statistic when insurgent leaders often pay young men to ambush coalition troops or plant roadside bombs. Military boards review the evidence and intelligence in each detainees case every six months, as part of an effort to be fair to detainees and to make sure they dont release men likely to return to the fight. A US officernot a lawyeris assigned to act as the detainees advocate, summoning witnesses, contacting family and questioning the militarys case. The board can recommend transfer to Afghan authorities, continued incarceration or release. Some Afghan judges and prosecutors operate out of the Parwan facility to process detainees received from US hands. The question isnt so much whether a detainee is guilty of past misdeeds; rather it is about whether US commanders believe he can be trusted not to rejoin the insurgency. It is the release program that creates the most good will for the U.S, said Adm. Harward. A former detainee becomes a messenger, he said. US forces have detained around 7,550 suspected insurgents since the beginning of last year, sending 1,530 of them to Parwan, joining detainees transferred from Bagram. The US has released some 375 to councils of elders, or shuras, and turned another 320 over for release by Afghan authorities. In a typical release in January, the military flew three detainees, 16 to 22 years old, back to their home district in Sayedabad, southwest of Kabul. Each man wore a US-issued olive-drab jacket and blue watch cap, and carried a bag emblazoned with the phrase, Islamic Republic of AfghanistanPeace and Unity. Family members and community elders signed papers promising to keep the ex-prisoner on the straight and narrow. A local official signed a federal form titled, Receipt for Detainee Release. Afterwards, the elders passed around cups of hot tea and plates of raisins and almonds. Ask them how we treated them, Gen. Marjan told the elders. Fazal Karim Muslim, the top government authority in Sayedabad, embraced the detainees fondly. Look at that young man, Mr. Muslim said, pointing at a 16-year-old who was detained in November with a land-mine casing, seven cellphones and the tail fins of a rocket-propelled grenade. His father wants him to be a doctor or engineerhe doesnt want him to be a suicide bomber. -WSJ