IT MAY NOT BE the most dramatic operation going on to defeat the insurgency and weed out al Qaeda operatives in Iraq, and it may not grab the biggest headlines. But one Marine general is waging his counterinsurgency fight by attacking the battlefield of the mind, rather than kicking in doors and blowing up buildings.
In a corner of the sprawling Baghdad International Airport, just a harrowing armored bus ride from the Green Zone, Maj. Gen. Doug Stone is implementing a novel plan to undercut the insurgency by drying up its base of hardened fighters.
With a combination of vocational education, religious "enlightenment" courses, and more carrots than sticks, Stone is working to send detainees captured in U.S. raids back into society with a mission of building a unified Iraq, rather than tearing it down.
"Victory is to establish an alliance with and to empower the moderate Iraqis to effectively marginalize the violent extremists," Stone said in an interview from his base at Camp Cropper, Iraq. "We're trying to build this society inside that would reflect victory on the outside."
What makes Stone unique in this high-profile job is his background. A Marine reservist who's made a healthy living in private business, Stone is a Marine for the love of it--he's not exactly gunning for Commandant. That's why he's a bit more willing to take risks and attack problems with a gusto that cuts potential career consequences out of the equation.
After assuming command of detainee operations in May, Stone put together a novel program that aims to separate the moderate Iraqis that have been detained during raids and other combat operations from the "dead-ender" extremists who he believes are unable to be swayed. Keep in mind that by the time Stone's troops see a detainee they've usually been through a few days of vetting through various levels of command and have been found to be enough of a threat to send to one of the larger detention camps.
About 60 at a time, Stone's troops put detainees through a battery of questioning that's more than just a typical interrogation. They're looking for information on education, job history, criminal record, religious motivations and aptitude--all in hopes of developing an alternative to going back to their insurgent ways.
After separating the hard-cores from the moderates, Stone plies the detainees with vocational training, counseling and religion classes run by Iraqi imams to divert their energies into embracing a unified Iraq.
Of the 25,000 detainees within his facilities, Stone figures the average age is about 35 years-old, 50 percent are married, nearly 80 percent are unemployed and around 65 percent are illiterate.
And the majority of the detainee population is Sunni.
Though the situation at one time seemed intractable, Stone is beginning to see some success with his plan. In the past, as many as 7 percent of detainees who were eventually released found their way back into the detainee camps. That included many who left the camps during government-sponsored mass releases. But since the beginning of 2007, less than 2 percent of the 4,000 detainees released have returned--and none of those are graduates of the new program.
"We're trying to find out which of the ones are just unemployed and would not return to the fight," Stone explained. "When they go back to society, A: we hope that they won't return and B: we hope they engage in helping the rest of society know what we're doing."
The new strategy is also beginning to change minds inside the prison walls. In September, Stone said two groups of moderate detainees turned in a group of religious extremists hiding in their midst, pushing the so-called "takfiri" up against the fence and calling guards over to remove them from their compound.
The incident "is reflective of the kind of behavior we would like to see," Stone said. "That word got out and it is starting to spread."
"We've been able to get these guys on the run [and] put them in their own compound so that we can see if we can knock the edges off of them."
Stone said al Qaeda sometimes uses children in their operations, so his detainee population includes more than 150 he considers "youths." These detainees undergo a similar education program to the adults--though the religion classes are "more a civics class" than the adult one--along with sports and art courses.
One vocational program puts the detainees to use making bricks to help rebuild Iraq's war-torn infrastructure. Each brick made by the detainees is inscribed in Arabic "brick by brick we rebuild our nation."
"We've had 14 or so youth not want to leave when they could have been let go," Stone recalled. "We've had parents visit us and say 'if he's working on his education please don't let him out.' "
Christian Lowe is managing editor of Military.com and is a contributing writer to THE DAILY STANDARD.