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To Have and To Hold

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
Volume 014, Issue 43
Weekly Standard


Detention policy is one of the least discussed but most important aspects of the war in Afghanistan. The handling of prisoners gets publicity only when there is a major screw-up such as at Abu Ghraib or the smaller-scale abuses that occurred in Afghanistan in the early years of the U.S. presence there. But properly handled this can and should be a major element of any successful counterinsurgency strategy.

The French soldier Roger Trinquier, who served in Indochina and Algeria, did a good job of summing up both the pitfalls and potential of detentions in his classic text, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counter-insurgency (1964):

One of the first problems encountered, that of lodging the individuals arrested, will generally not have been anticipated. Prisons, designed essentially to accommodate offenders against common law, will rapidly become inadequate and will not meet our needs. We will be compelled to intern the prisoners under improvised, often deplorable conditions, which will lead to justifiable criticism our adversaries will exploit. From the beginning of hostilities, prison camps should be set up according to the conditions laid down by the Geneva Convention. They should be sufficiently large to take care of all prisoners until the end of the war.

Top U.S. leaders during the early stages of the Iraq war didn't take Trinquier's admonitions to heart. But when the surge started in 2007, those oversights began to be rectified by a commander, David Petraeus, who had coauthored a counterinsurgency manual that drew on the work of Trinquier and other eminent strategists.

The number of detainees held in Iraq by U.S. forces swelled from 14,000 to 24,000 during the course of the surge in 2007. (The figure is now down below 11,000.) But while the number held increased, complaints about abuses--and about terrorists turning prison camps into Jihad U.--decreased. This was largely a result of the changes implemented by Major General Douglas Stone, a Marine Corps reservist who brought a fresh eye to the problem when he took over Task Force 134, charged with detainee operations, in April 2007. He was helped by the fact that since the Abu Ghraib debacle in 2004 an entirely new detention camp had been built in southern Iraq (Camp Bucca), while the Camp Cropper facility near Baghdad had been upgraded and more troops (primarily military police) had been assigned to their operations.

But the way those facilities were run still left a lot to be desired. Among other steps, Stone segregated detainees based on threat level--the hard-core jihadists were moved away from the small fry so they could not influence them. Moderate Islamic leaders were brought in to preach nonviolence and to counteract jihadist indoctrination. Panels of officers were set up to review all detentions and arrange for release of prisoners deemed no longer a threat. (Tribal elders or -others had to vouch for their continued good conduct, which helps explain why the recidivism rate has been extremely low.) For those still stuck behind barbed wire, family visits were not only allowed but encouraged, providing a morale boost and dispelling rumors of mistreatment. First-rate medical care was offered--equivalent to that received by U.S. troops. Educational and vocational programs were set up to keep prisoners busy and to teach them skills they could use to get a job. When I visited Camp Cropper last year, I saw an impressive array of paintings and sewing projects that the detainees were producing--some looked like they might fetch a nice price in a Manhattan art gallery.

All of this was part of a concept known as "COIN inside the wire" (COIN is the military acronym for counterinsurgency), and it is now generally acknowledged that this was a major aspect of the vast improvements that have occurred in Iraq since 2006. Nothing like it has been done in Afghanistan--yet. But it's starting to happen. Stone was just sent to Afghanistan at Petraeus's request to study American and Afghan detention operations and to make recommendations for improvements.

One of the major problems in Afghanistan is that we are not holding nearly enough detainees--only 620 or so at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility. A new detention facility at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul is almost complete and expected to open in September. Then U.S. forces will have the capacity to hold over 1,200 detainees in better conditions. That's an improvement, but it leaves capacity still inadequate given that Afghanistan is a larger country than Iraq, in both area and population, and confronts an insurgency believed to number tens of thousands of full- and part-time fighters.

If and when U.S.-led counter-insurgency operations gain irreversible momentum, lots of Taliban are expected to flip over to the government's side as happened in Iraq with the Awakening councils and the Sons of Iraq. But to gain momentum in the first place it is important to take a lot of terrorists off the streets (or, more accurately, off the hills)--either by killing them or by locking them up. And there is a lot to be said for the latter over the former. You can't interrogate dead men, and the massive use of firepower is sure to alienate the population even more than massive lockups.

As I discovered during a visit a few months ago, no one knows how many suspected terrorists the Afghans are holding--itself a major part of the problem. There needs to be a much better accounting of prisoners. A July 20 article in the New York Times cites a figure of 15,000 detainees, but this covers the country's entire prison population, most of them common criminals. Only about 350 detainees are being held at the special high-security wing of the Pul-i-Charkhi prison, which was set up with U.S. help.

The first and most urgent demand is to put a lot more suspected terrorists behind bars, while being careful to avoid the kind of backlash that would occur if U.S. troops were to start indiscriminately rounding up young men. In Iraq in 2003-04 we saw how large-scale sweeps and detentions can alienate the population, but we also saw in 2007-08 how targeted operations based on good intelligence can dramatically improve a situation by taking hardened killers off the streets. That kind of intelligence can be generated only by having troops live in small outposts among the people, something that is only now starting to happen in some of the most insurgent-infested areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

The second and equally urgent demand is to improve detention operations so that larger numbers of detainees can be held securely and safely--and ensure that those who are eventually released don't come out more embittered and better versed in the dark arts of destruction than when they went in.

There are daunting obstacles in the way of accomplishing these urgent objectives. The biggest problem is the lack of Afghan government capacity. There are not nearly enough judges, lawyers, or prison guards, and the ones who exist are too often corrupt, incompetent, and unprofessional. A dramatic indication of the problem was the fact that the Taliban were able to raid a major prison in Kandahar a year ago, freeing hundreds of their compatriots. Iraq had (and still has) many of these same issues, but they were somewhat alleviated by an American Rule-of-Law Task Force which built court houses, trained prison guards and judges, and undertook other steps to boost Iraqi capacity. No such large-scale effort has yet been undertaken in Afghanistan.

There is another obstacle in Afghanistan that we didn't face in Iraq. That would be NATO. Our European allies are so wary of being involved in "another Abu Ghraib" that they have gone to the extreme of refusing to take part in detention operations altogether. Troops operating under the NATO mandate--that is, almost all foreign troops in Afghanistan, including almost all Americans--are allowed to hold detainees for only 96 hours. Then they have to either release them or turn them over to the Afghans. Neither choice is a good one. As one officer at Task Force Guardian, the U.S. unit in charge of detention operations, told me, "With the NATO policy the Taliban have a sanctuary right here in Afghanistan." Troops I talked to in southern Afghanistan complained of a "catch and release" policy, with U.S. detention officials accepting only "high value targets." Many lower-level detainees had to be cut loose even if they were still dangerous.

The final problem is the U.S. courts. Already one federal judge has given Bagram detainees captured outside Afghanistan the right to challenge their detention in habeas corpus proceedings in American courts. If this precedent stands and expands, it could put at risk the entire war effort. Troops cannot effectively fight a massive insurgency if bound to observe the same constitutional protections we extend to criminal suspects at home. They need to have the authority to lock up those deemed a threat, often on the basis of secret intelligence that can't be shared with the accused, even if there is no evidence "beyond a reasonable doubt" to convict them in a court of law.

But assuming that the Supreme Court doesn't simply take charge of the entire detention operation, the other problems are hardly insuperable. The United States can dual-hat American troops to give them the authority under Operation Enduring Freedom to hold detainees indefinitely, as occurred in Iraq. We can also work with the Afghans to boost their own capacity to adjudicate cases and to hold terrorism suspects.

The bad news is that during the seven-plus years we've been fighting in Afghanistan these steps still have not been taken. The good news is that the new leadership team--General Stanley McChrystal in Kabul, General David Petraeus at Central Command, and Admiral James Stavridis at NATO--understands the place of detention operations within a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy and is starting to address the problems. Better late than never.


Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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