Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
July 19, 2007
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Test cases under way
U.S. COMMAND IN BAGHDAD LAUNCHES BID TO REHABILITATE IRAQI DETAINEES
A U.S. commander who oversees the detainment of more than 22,000 suspected insurgents and militia members in Iraq is launching what he describes as an unprecedented effort to rehabilitate and return many of them to their home communities. Initiatives include job programs for captives, literacy efforts for those with less than a fifth-grade education and more frequent case reviews for potential detainee releases. Prior to release, inmates and local leaders who vouch for them must sign pledges that the individual will not lapse back into violence.
“There’s little doubt that these detainees will be flowing back into society,” Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone said in a July 16 interview. “And we’re working real hard to make sure that when they go back, they will not return to the same kind of combat behavior that got them here in the first place.”
The Marine Corps general spoke with ITP by telephone from Baghdad, where he commands detainee operations at the U.S.-led military headquarters.
The initiative is borne of necessity, defense officials say. With President Bush’s surge strategy resulting in peak numbers behind bars, U.S. forces in Iraq are running out of prison space. Late last year -- well before the surge began -- one U.S. military official estimated Iraq was short roughly 100,000 prison beds (Inside the Pentagon, Dec. 7, 2006, p1).
American military leaders also are planning for the time, either sooner or later, when the American military presence will be drawn down and detention facilities must be handed off to the Iraqis, officials tell ITP. With about 86 percent of detainees Sunni Muslims, there is increasing concern that a Shia-dominated central government that assumes control of the facilities might abuse inmates or be subjected to attack for holding them, as The Financial Times reported this week.
Suspected insurgents and militia members are held at two theater-level detention facilities in Iraq. Camp Cropper, in western Baghdad, houses approximately 4,000 detainees. Camp Bucca, about 25 miles south of Basra in southern Iraq, holds roughly 18,000 detainees.
Conditions at the facilities are fairly grim, with most detainees confined to compounds of 1,000 or so where hard-core jihadists can and do recruit others incarcerated for lesser offenses, Stone and others describe.
Why not build more prison space?
“I have recommended that we build more,” Stone told ITP, adding that new facilities should be dispersed throughout Iraq so detainees will be closer to the family, religious, social and job networks that might help reform them.
But, he said, “it’s always tough at the end of any evolution to go back and say, ‘Hey, I need to now go build something.’”
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and the officer to whom Stone directly reports, supports the idea of expanding detention facilities.
“There’s no question but that he’s providing support for this concept,” Stone said. But, the Marine added, “I think the leadership has to make tough decisions about trade-offs. And they’re making those and they’re thinking about them now.”
Meanwhile, Stone is focusing on winnowing down his detainee population.
Beginning next week, he will require that each soon-to-be-released internee sign a pledge renouncing violence, witnessed by an Iraqi judge and a community guarantor, such as a tribal chief or family member.
In response to concerns about a chronic cycle of insurgent “catch and release,” Task Force 134 has been increasingly seeking the assent of U.S. commanders in the area, as well as local guarantors, before a detainee is set free (ITP, July 12, p1).
Now each pledge candidate also will be delivered to the Iraqi court, where “a judge is sitting down with him in a very stern and very serious manner,” Stone said. “And [the judge] takes up to 15 minutes or more with him, and says, ‘You know, look, you’re going to sign a pledge. And this pledge is a legal and binding agreement that you’re not going to take up arms and go against the coalition and the cause of building Iraq.’”
At the same time, the general is conducting an assessment of the various motivations compelling Sunni insurgents and Shia militia members.
He describes a small number of detainees as hard-core adherents to a violent jihadist belief structure who may be immune to any effort at reform.
“For some of them, the really violent Islamists, there’s only one way that they’re going to stop what they do,” Stone told ITP. “They’ll either be locked up for life or they’ll be on the other side of that [life-and-death] equation. But in the middle ground there’s a lot of others that we need to work with.”
Those who have joined in the violence because of nationalist ideals -- or, in some cases, under coercion -- may be good candidates for assimilation back into Iraqi society, he said.
“If they’re in that category of civilians who took up arms against the U.S. or coalition forces but they did it because they just didn’t want anybody else on Iraqi soil, how bad is that?” Stone asked.
Killing Americans is “a terrible thing,” he added, “but warriors fight warriors, that’s what they do. I’m not saying you forgive and forget. But I’m telling you there’s a difference between somebody who is psychologically wedded to al Qaeda’s doctrine, and somebody who was unemployed and was forced to go fight us.”
By Stone’s estimate, “a huge number” of the more than 22,000 currently interned at theater-level facilities can be rehabilitated. In the coming weeks, as his assessment is completed, he hopes to glean a more detailed understanding of how many might be reformed.
But the senior officer -- a reservist whose private-sector experience includes serving as CEO of three software development firms -- would not rule out the possibility of rehabilitating even jihadist recruits. His task force is studying the feasibility of coaxing newly literate Iraqi captives into a more moderate understanding of Islam, in which violence is discouraged.
“How quickly does an illiterate male come around to being able to read the Koran, so that then [he] can sit with a religious scholar in a group and read a particular [Koran passage] and, in an intelligent manner, discuss it?” Stone mused. “And [he might] say, ‘Geez, you know I’ve been told it meant ‘this,’ but the truth of the matter is it means ‘that.’”
He said he launched the multifaceted assessment a few weeks ago and details about how the task force might approach reforming different categories of detainees remain classified.
But his evolving initiative will seek to build on the central question facing a U.S.-Iraqi release board that reviews each case: Does the detainee pose an imminent security threat to U.S. forces or their allies?
Inmates who are found not to be an imminent threat are routinely released.
For those who do pose a continued threat, Stone and his aides are now asking an additional question: Can this detainee be turned around?
Task Force 134 categorizes detainees into six different groups, said Stone, ranging from Iraqis caught with weapons to those with taped confessions of killing Americans.
Stone’s group, with the help of psychological professionals and religious scholars, is digging deeper into the impulses behind violent Iraqi behavior.
“How committed are they to various belief structures? What motivated them?” Stone asks. “Are they here because they just didn’t like coalition forces standing on Iraqi soil? Are they here because they were recruited outside the country and brought in? Were they recruited inside the country because they’re unemployed? Were they recruited and they didn’t want to participate and they were threatened [with harm] if they didn’t participate?”
With the notion of tailoring a fix to each particular case, the task force’s emerging tool kit includes:
Schoolhouse: “I have hundreds today in a basic education program, going from first to fifth grade,” Stone said. “They move very, very quickly from what is evaluated as an illiterate to somebody who is very competent and gets an Iraqi-documented education certificate.” Given the 130-degree summer weather during the day, classes are mostly held at night.
Religious studies: Just under 100 detainees are enrolled in a religious education program led by moderate Iraqi clerics, Stone said.
Jobs: Getting inmates jobs outside the camps, where they can work several hours for pay before returning to incarceration, has proved challenging to implement and is just in its earliest stages, Stone said. “It’s hard when you have a big backlog to guard everybody when they’re outside of the detention facility,” he said.
Case reviews: Reviews by the U.S.-Iraqi Combined Review and Release Board are held at least every six months for each detainee. Stone says that, for the first time, detainees are now present at their case review and can hear why they continue to be regarded as a security threat. Several hundred have gone through this more open process, which helps them understand how they must change to win release.
Pledges: Stone expects to “set up a system where we’re doing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds,” he said. The general envisions working with tribal chiefs interested in serving as guarantors, “willing to stand up for 50 guys,” for example.
“What we’re trying to do, obviously, is impress upon the 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 told ITP.
In his view, the effects are already beginning to crystallize.
“I have seen, in the last two months, a process by which the moderate leaders inside the compounds have begun to exert pressure on the population,” he said. “The last couple months, even though it’s been the largest detention [group] it’s ever been, it’s also been the calmest in terms of the number of incidents.”
Stone believes the way in which the United States detains and releases combatants is critical to its overall success in waging a counterinsurgency campaign (see box).
“You have to ask the question, ‘Is this guy committed?’” Stone said. “And if he’s not committed and he’s not an imminent security threat, and he can see a way to get out, then . . . America should say, ‘All right, the Iraqis accept this. We accept this. You’re back in your society. Do the right thing. Build your country.’”
He added: “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.”
The remainder -- the most hard-core killers -- will almost certainly stay in continued lock-up and handed over to the Iraqi government at some point.
“I’m very certain that there are some that fall into the category of imminent security threat and will not come out of that category,” Stone said.
—Elaine M. Grossman