Inside the Detention Camps: A New Campaign in Iraq

By Brooks, Mason; Miller, Drew | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Inside the Detention Camps: A New Campaign in Iraq


Brooks, Mason, Miller, Drew, Joint Force Quarterly


The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 without a detailed plan for handling large numbers of detainees in counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare. One consequence of this situation was the debacle at Abu Ghraib prison that surfaced in 2004. Since then, the United States has struggled to regain the moral "high ground" and the trust of the Iraqi people.

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After the Abu Ghraib scandal, the U.S. military mainly concentrated on enforcing conventional "care and treatment" standards for the humane handling of detainees. (1) Insurgents, on the other hand, challenged coalition force (CF) authority in the camps and worked to recruit and train insurgents inside U.S. detention facilities. But in the past year, the handling of detainees has undergone a transformation. The new approach encourages detainees to embrace a more moderate view of Islam, reject violence, and support the government of Iraq. While the jury remains out on the reorientation effort's long-term effect (curbing recidivism or cramping insurgent recruitment, for example), it provides a useful case study of adaptation in war.

Today, the detention situation in Iraq is improved over a year ago. A calmed situation in the camps, coupled with a belief that faster release could yield political advantages, sparked a proposal to accelerate detainees' release. Polls, interviews, and other sources showed that Iraqis (especially Sunnis) overwhelmingly see CF detention and detainee treatment as unfair. Former Iraqi Minister of Defense and Finance Ali Allawi noted, "Heavy-handed security measures ... played a large part in crystallizing anti-Coalition feelings in the Sunni areas." (2) Anger stemming from perceptions of unfair detention by "occupiers" provides support for insurgents and fertile ground for recruiting. Accelerated release of detainees can reduce this alienation effect and meet political demands to free Iraqis, but it also risks having them rejoin the insurgency and could jeopardize fragile security gains.

Pressed to inform General David Petraeus of complicated decision aspects, the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) staff directed an assessment of the proposal's risks and benefits. This article describes the new detainee policies, summarizes the effort to assess benefits and risks, highlights the reaction to that assessment, and explains early (and expected) campaign impacts.

New Detainee Policies

Major General Douglas Stone, USMCR, assumed command of Task Force 134 (TF-134) in 2007, with responsibility for the detention of thousands of Iraqis captured by U.S. forces. He brought to the job a new approach--something he credits to his experience as a successful businessman and entrepreneur. Stone stresses practical problem-solving and initiative, along with listening to detainees to understand their motivations. He speaks Arabic and routinely studies the Koran to enhance his grasp of Iraqi culture.

General Stone began by separating insurgent agitators from other detainees, giving moderates in the camps the freedom to choose a path other than violence. The result convinced the general that at least a third of all detainees could be influenced to reject insurgency within the camps' controlled detention setting. A new goal emerged: turning detainees into cooperative moderates. A multilayered process aimed at attaining that goal is summarized in figure 1 and elaborated below.

Separation of Moderates from Irreconcilables. TF-134 uses information from detainee entrance screening at a transition barracks to identify moderates and extremists. While resource-intensive, this screening and resulting isolation of extremists improve camp security by giving moderates the freedom to avoid and reject extremist views and activities. It also enables detainees to volunteer for education programs, cooperate with guards, and transform their outlook and behavior.

Opportunity for Religious, Academic, and Vocational Education. …

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