Issues and Ideas - Rehabilitating Iraqi Insurgents

Elaine M. Grossman
© National Journal Group, Inc.

The United States holds nearly 20,000 suspected insurgents in detention at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq and, on long days in the desert sun, the inmates can get restless. On May 14, restlessness turned into a riot.

Detainees corralled inside huge compounds — where the only refuge from the sun is a rudimentary tent — decided it was time to move. Virtually every captive in a 1,000-man compound pushed up against the fence and chanted in Arabic.

The number of agitators actually was several thousand, “if you count somebody cheering them on,” says Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, who oversees the detention camps in Iraq. “I guess if they wanted to, they could have” pushed the fence down, he says. The inmates, though, still would have had to run a long way to reach Camp Bucca’s heavily guarded outer perimeter.

But the American troops who stand guard at Bucca, near the Shiite town of Umm Qasr, kept the incident from spiraling out of control. MPs clad in riot gear entered the compound, isolated the ringleaders, and, after four hours, pacified the rioters, said the general, an unflappable marine who has an easy laugh.

One might think that the event served as a wake-up call for Stone, coming as it did in only his second month as commander of Task Force 134, the military’s detainee operation in Iraq. But this Marine reservist on active duty knew what very few Americans do: With some regularity, Iraqi inmates stage riots, burn their tents down, and engage in brutal violence against one another inside the confines of Camp Bucca. Within weeks of his arrival, Stone knew a riot was possible, and he was already formulating his response.

With President Bush’s “surge” strategy resulting in the detentions of thousands more Iraqis, facilities at Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, in western Baghdad, risked serious overcrowding. In April, just two weeks into his tour, Stone began outlining a plan not only to expand internment facilities but also to attempt on a massive scale to rehabilitate suspected insurgents before returning them to their communities.

Trying to stay detached from the noisy debate in Washington on the Iraq war, Stone is pursuing the most ambitious set of initiatives the United States has attempted in the five years it has held Iraqi insurgents. In fact, he sees his reforms as critical if the U.S. is to “win” the war.

To truly understand what Stone is attempting requires a quick look at what the general found when he arrived in Baghdad last spring.

One distinguishing feature of a successful counterinsurgency operation is the effort to cultivate popular support and isolate insurgents, casting them as extremists intent on undermining the public good. The U.S. military now largely concedes that it failed to try such counterinsurgency principles during the early years of the American occupation. Instead, many units — trained for conventional combat — used a dose of heavy-handed tactics to round up scores of fighting-age males in fairly indiscriminate, community-wide security sweeps.

The blunt-force approach was a poor substitute for intelligence about who the insurgents were and how they operated, and an unfortunate legacy was to alienate a large chunk of the Iraqi population, commanders now say.

The huge influx of captives strained detention capacity over the past several years. In response, the Baghdad-based U.S. military headquarters instituted a liberal release policy: Approximately two of every three Iraqis suspected of being insurgents or sectarian militia members were set free, even though multiple levels of review often concluded that the military possessed sufficient evidence to keep them locked up.

Since the war began in March 2003, a stunning 44,000 out of 65,000 captives have been released. No nationwide program to parole or even track these individuals has been conducted. “I think former commanding generals released [detainees] because of capacity concerns,” Stone acknowledged.

About two years ago, U.S. commanders began noticing that insurgents and militia members they had captured just weeks or months before were returning to their communities and rejoining the fight. Dubbing the dysfunctional process “catch and release,” the troops complained that the Baghdad headquarters was undermining their hard-fought efforts to contain the violence.

Meanwhile, internment facilities morphed into “gladiator camps” at which insurgents, confident of imminent release, built their strength and “rested up,” said one Army unit commander. The officer was one of several interviewed for this article who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Adding to the problems, the Iraqi government undertook a number of mass releases in sporadic attempts at reconciliation with political rivals. One such release in June 2006 freed 2,500 captives as “a goodwill gesture,” Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said at the time.

“We keep releasing them, and we fight the same guys over and over again,” a second Army commander with substantial Iraq experience complained last year. “It’s negligent. It’s culpable negligence.”

One of Stone’s first acts upon taking command was to end the routine discharges. “I’m not going to do mass releases,” he told National Journal in an August 16 telephone interview from Baghdad. “I’m not going to do it.” Instead, he moved swiftly to overturn years of high-level U.S. and Iraqi opposition to expanding detention capacity in Iraq. Critics say that political impediments hampered earlier efforts to expand internment facilities.

“Neither the American government, mindful of criticism of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, nor the Iraqi government wants to take the political heat of building more prisons,” wrote Owen West, a former marine who served two tours in Iraq, and his father, Bing West, a former assistant Defense secretary, in a June 15 New York Times op-ed column.

But last month, Adm. William Fallon — who became the U.S. Central Command’s top officer in March — approved Stone’s proposal to build at least 15,000 more internment spaces in Iraq. To tighten security, Stone’s task force will also remodel Camp Bucca, a mammoth facility that soon could hold as many as 28,000 captives.

“Inside these compounds there are networks that grow up that have leaders and have recruiters and have enforcers,” Stone said. “We’re working very hard to break those up.” The changes will make the camp more modular, shifting detainees from the 1,000-man pens into units housing as few as 25 captives each.

An additional 4,000 internees reside in more-finished quarters at Camp Cropper, which accommodates incoming and departing detainees and those involved in criminal cases or experiencing health problems. Cropper is also home to some 780 juveniles between the ages of 11 and 17 who have been detained on suspicion of aiding insurgents.

Fallon approved a plan to build by early next year two new detention facilities that will allow selected captives to be closer to home. Approximately 85 percent of U.S.-held detainees are Sunnis, but most are held in the Shiite south, far from their communities. The new installations will be built at existing U.S.-run bases near Baghdad and in Ramadi, a Sunni stronghold. “The idea is that their families can visit,” Fallon told National Journal in a July 27 interview in Washington. “And the family structures are very strong in this country. We want families to become accountable.”

These facilities will incorporate the same kinds of modularity under construction at Bucca, Stone said, and are aimed at minimizing detainee “networking” that is so “destructive to our counterinsurgency efforts.” Taken together, the changes will make the detention facilities “much more secure, breaking up these big corrals of hundreds of people milling around,” Fallon said. Thus “there’s less chance of rioting or bad behavior spreading and instigating trouble throughout the camp.”

The construction is just one feature of Stone’s plan to rehabilitate insurgents. Over the past four months, his task force has also devised a structured process by which interested detainees can begin personal reform and, in time, win their freedom. If successful, Task Force 134 will provide all but the most hardened extremists with basic literacy and job skills. It will also provide religious instruction by moderate clerics. Those prisoners who show promise will be moved to the new detention facilities, where their families or tribal leaders ultimately could act as personal guarantors of their behavior after release.

One underlying concern prompting the new release program is the fear that after the United States leaves Iraq, any Shiite-dominated central government might condone abuse of the Sunni captives — or be subjected to attack for holding them.

The detainee initiatives under way, which will cost at least $250 million this year, include:

* Schooling. Many of Bucca’s detainees are illiterate, a fact Stone seized on as a potential opportunity. He opened a basic education program that runs from first to fifth grade; about 5,000 detainees have enrolled, up from just a few hundred last month. Underage youths held at Camp Cropper — many of whom were caught laying roadside bombs at the insurgents’ behest — also attend a daily school with Iraqi instructors called Dar al-Hikmah, or “House of Wisdom.”

* Religious Studies. Task Force 134 just completed a pilot program in which dozens of detainees are studying the Koran under the tutelage of moderate Iraqi clerics. The objective? “Religious enlightenment,” in Stone’s words, that might allow a detainee to reject Al Qaeda’s extremist interpretations of Islam.

* Jobs. Some of the lowest-risk inmates have won the privilege of venturing outside the camp gates daily to earn money for their families. Five hundred Camp Cropper detainees have volunteered for the work program, and Stone expects to have 2,000 enrolled at Camp Bucca by October. The U.S. military is looking to expand the program with inmate jobs at a local mud-brick factory and textile plant, he said.

* Case Reviews. A U.S.-Iraqi Combined Review and Release Board performs case-by-case assessments of each detainee at least every six months. But unlike before, the inmate is now present at the review and can hear why he may or may not remain behind bars. Stone has stepped up the pace, holding 140 such reviews a day, six days a week. Several hundred detainees have gone through the process, which the general says helps the inmates understand how they must change to win release.

* Pledges. Every Sunday, 20 detainees who have reformed sufficiently to win release meet first with an Iraqi judge to sign a legal document renouncing violence. As more detainees undergo rehabilitation, Stone expects to ramp up the pledge ceremonies to 50 a day, six days a week. “What we’re trying to do, obviously, is impress upon the [detained] population that there is a mechanism by which their behavior and the things that they do can influence their release and can influence the society,” Stone said in a July interview. “I’m hopeful that the vast majority of those that we contend with here will do that. And I want to give them a path back.”

Beginning soon, Task Force 134 will assess each incoming detainee to gauge his education level, skill set, motivations for fighting, and psychological health. The profiles will help the command customize a rehabilitation plan for each newcomer and assign him to an appropriate facility.

“You wouldn’t want to put a bunch of moderates in with the extremists, because the extremists will turn the moderates,” Stone said, noting that diehard insurgents will remain at Bucca.

At the same time, Stone has contracted with the Rand think tank to conduct a sweeping assessment of insurgents under detention. Using the captive population as a petri dish, the study will zero in on one central question: Why did they join? The general expects that the results, which are due in February, will benefit the entire coalition with the clearest picture to date of insurgent motivations.

Some critics have wondered whether Stone’s plan is simply a newfangled version of catch and release. Owen West, an early critic of the previous release policy, says the new approach is an improvement. However, he said in August, “I don’t think we have the infrastructure in place to track them in parole, and I don’t think the sheiks will follow through” as guarantors of the released detainees’ behavior.

Fallon acknowledges that the new plan for controlled releases holds a recidivism risk. “We know there’ll be some percentage that will turn back into bad actors,” he said. But, Fallon continued, that risk must

be balanced against the drawbacks of holding tens of thousands of Iraqis, “particularly [in a] society [that] doesn’t deal well with long-term incarceration.”

Under the new approach, “detention becomes a very real and critical component of counterinsurgency,” Stone said. “It’s not a warehousing function. It is a continuation of the counterinsurgency fight.”

Back on Capitol Hill, the political clock is ticking ever more loudly on a change in course for Iraq. How can Stone hope to see through his ambitious set of initiatives? “I never even think about what’s going on in Washington…. I know what it is. But it doesn’t bother me,” he said. In the meantime, the general said, “we’re going to do these programs … and turn this enemy and the knowledge about them into an advantage.”

[Reprinted by permission of National Journal Group. This article may not be reproduced or redistributed, in part or in whole, without express permission of the publisher. Copyright 2007, National Journal Group. For more information and exclusive news, go to or]

2 Responses to “Issues and Ideas - Rehabilitating Iraqi Insurgents

  • 1
    December 4th, 2007 01:18

    If as much as 1% of the detainees are active (or even actively supportive of) insurgents it will be a miracle. Though after they are detained that % will rise considerably.

    To quote the old song “when will they ever learn”.

    Detention without trial was one of the single biggest factors in the rise of the IRA in the 70’s (notably the at that time wiser British Army was against it).

    The list of arguments against this nonsense is considerable and backed by hard and sad experience, to wit:

    - It destroys legitimacy, both locally and internationally.
    - The proportion of actual insugents caught is always woefully low.
    - The ‘intelligence’ gained from detainess is usually nonsense.
    - It is open to abuse and corruption in both the process of detaining and the management of detention centres.
    {There have been far, far too many stories of money and valuables being stolen by troops.}
    {How many are now taking (or will take in the future) bribes to lock someone up or leave someone alone?}
    - It creates ill will, resentment and opposition from the detainees, their family, friends and their community.
    - It destroys moral and morality in the armed forces.
    - It corrupts the process of clearly evaluating success and failure.
    {Far to easy to ’round up the usual suspects’ and claim that 10,000 ‘insurgents’ have been caught.}

    - And most important of all,the (smarter) insugents love it, because it creates more of them than are ever caught.

  • 2
    December 8th, 2007 19:05

    OS wrote;

    “To quote the old song “when will they ever learn”.

    Evidently well read, and studied in Creveld, perahaps amoung others, as one would expect here.

    You may apprecicate the tragic, poetic irrony and truth in this one;

    December 8, 2007

    Mother of al-Qaeda trio kills 16 in Iraq suicide attack
    James Hider in Baghdad
    A mother whose three sons were killed by Americans blew herself up and killed 16 other people yesterday as al-Qaeda began a new campaign against former Sunni insurgents who have joined forces with the American military in Iraq.

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