Detention Operations, Behavior Modification and Counter Insurgency

By Brown, James B.; Goepner, Erik W. et al. | Military Review, May-June 2009 | Go to article overview

Detention Operations, Behavior Modification and Counter Insurgency


Brown, James B., Goepner, Erik W., Clark, James M., Military Review


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INFLUENCING THE POPULATION is critical in a counterinsurgency, and the detainee population in Iraq represents a particularly salient demographic in that endeavor. Can an Iraqi detainee's extremist behavior be influenced and modified during detention, thereby making him a lesser threat to coalition forces upon release? (1) This question is crucial for Iraq's future. The lengthy insurgency has resulted in a large number of detainees, and of those who are still being held captive, many have extremist backgrounds. If enough of them can be influenced to adopt positive attitudes toward coalition forces and the Iraqi government, and they return as constructive members of their villages and social networks, the cumulative effects would help tremendously in ensuring long-term national stability.

In Iraq, 160,000 people have been through the detention process, and we estimate that each detainee has a network that includes approximately 100 other Iraqi citizens. (2) As a result, detainee experiences under America's care and custody may influence up to 16 million of Iraq's 26 million inhabitants. To see the potential future effects of current detention operations, one need only recall that many former detainees such as Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, and Jomo Kenyatta became important national leaders after their release from custody.

In the past, military practitioners and academics alike did not regard detainee operations as a legitimate subject for study in counterinsurgency, but the Army now regards the enlightened treatment of Iraq's detainee population as an integral part of successful counterinsurgency operations. Academics and military professionals, in literature and doctrine, have examined the problems of detention, but they have viewed them as outside the realm of operations. The normal perspective is that of the legal and moral necessity of collateral military duties tangential to operations, duties that sometimes lead to negative consequences. Notably, the Abu Ghraib incident emotionalized the subject of detainee care and custody to such an extent that thoughtful discussion of the subject has become increasingly difficult.

The characteristics of detention operations make it an ideal arena for combating an insurgency. Both guards and detainees "inside- the-wire" are captive audiences in contact with each other 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Unfortunately, the Army's detainee counterinsurgency strategy (focused as it is today) is a relatively new development. It only began with Major General Douglas Stone's assumption of command of Task Force 134 in May 2001. (3) One has to draw conclusions from the data and information available with caution. Nevertheless, developing an appropriate and successful system of detainee reintegration and reconciliation can produce great benefits and lessons for future counterinsurgency campaigns.

With the capacity to hold more than 21,000 detainees, Camp Bucca is the largest internment facility currently supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Camp Bucca leaders and Soldiers are working to modify the behavior of detainees so that when they reenter Iraqi society, they are no longer threats to the Iraqi government and coalition forces but rather agents of change for the future of Iraq.

Detention Strategy

In conventional warfare, opposing forces usually do not release their prisoners of war until combat ends. In counterinsurgency, however, the reintegration of detainees into the population should take place as soon as they are no longer a risk to society.

Task Force 134's current strategy regards detention facility operations as a legitimate part of America's overall counterinsurgency fight. The detention facility is not just a repository for those plucked from the "real" insurgency, but a legitimate arena for counterinsurgency actions. The task force has shifted detention operations from warehousing insurgents to engaging them.

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