The Magazine

To Have and To Hold

A long overdue rethinking of detention policies in Afghanistan.

Aug 3, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 43 • By MAX BOOT
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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.