General Recommends Releasing Majority of Bagram Detainees

As General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, prepares to address Congress on the situation in that country, he was recently presented with a 700-page report on detainee treatment. The report, prepared by Major General Douglas Stone, among other things recommends releasing nearly two-thirds of those individuals being held at Bagram Airfield. Such a move would release approximately 400 individuals, many of whom either are no longer a threat or against whom insufficient evidence exists for prosecution.

General Stone, who oversaw detainee operations in Iraq during 2007 and 2008, was sent to Afghanistan to assess the detainee situation at the behest of General David Petraeus. Given General Stone’s success in Iraq, this assignment is of little surprise. But, considering the vastly different political, social, and legal situations in Afghanistan, the transferability of lessons learned in Iraq is questionable.

According to NPR, General Stone’s report recommends that the US release approximately 400 of its 600 detainees and turn the remaining individuals over to Afghan forces within 12-18 months. Citing growing resentment of US treatment of detainees, General Stone’s recommendations reflect the reality that unhappy Afghans are likely to join the Taliban insurgency. As the focus shifts from Iraq to Afghanistan, military commanders, led by General Petraeus (the general largely credited with the success of the surge in Iraq and creator of the Army’s counterinsurgency training manual), are trying to apply lessons learned in one conflict to the other, hoping to duplicate their success.

Fearing that extended detention is causing more-moderate individuals to join the Taliban insurgency, General Stone’s report recommends transferring or releasing detainees more rapidly, to prevent them from languishing in custody. The complication, however, comes in the mechanics. As previously mentioned, the legal system in Afghanistan is far-less developed than that of Iraq, inherently impeding the process and General Stone’s goal. Furthermore, locating detainees’ families in Afghanistan is far more challenging than in Iraq, further delaying the process. This is where General Stone’s education campaign plays an important role. As in Iraq, General Stone recommends providing vocational training and the counseling of moderate Islamic clerics to prevent detainees from becoming more militant while in custody. Given the success he had in Iraq, General Stone’s plans seem reasonable if his recommendations can be implemented.

Implementing the changes laid out in General Stone’s report may face its largest challenge from a familiar foe: lack of personnel. Funding is a further hurdle. But biggest of all may be the risk of releasing individuals who will join the Taliban insurgency that seems only to be gaining strength. That said, General Stone feels strongly that retraining and releasing the majority of those detainees held at Bagram will serve to blunt the rising Taliban threat by winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan population. As the US presence in Iraq is diminished and more personnel move to Afghanistan, Generals Petraeus, McChrystal, and Stone may find that the personnel and funds become available to implement General Stone’s recommendations.