No Detention Plan for ISIS
Today’s New York Times tells us that the Obama Administration currently has no active plan for holding Islamic State (ISIS) detainees captured on the battlefields of Iraq or Syria. The article makes clear that the lack of a plan isn’t because the Obama Administration hasn’t been thinking about the issue. In reality, the lack of a plan stems from the fact that the Obama Administration refuses to develop one.
Why not? After the fiasco known as Guantanamo Bay, the administration apparently has no interest in getting into the detention business. As in, not just the CIA not getting into the detention business — but the whole government not running a detention facility.
So this triggers an obvious question: Where will the detainees go?
One worry expressed in the article, echoed by former administration lawyer William Lietzau, is that the lack of a detention program might have perverse incentives. Some non-U.S. forces fighting against ISIS might decide that it is better to execute detainees rather than capture them, given the lack of a viable detention plan or facility run by the United States. It doesn’t take an international lawyer to know that executing prisoners, or soldiers otherwise hors de combat, is a war crime (and a particularly egregious one).
So far, the assumption has been that the Iraqi government will run a detention program itself (at least for detainees captured on Iraqi territory). According to the Times:
The potential for a large number of prisoners presenting these kinds of challenges — for somebody — has been raised at planning meetings for months both inside the Obama administration and with coalition partners, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations.
But with no good options, the Obama administration’s default policy is to take custody of the highest-value detainees for interrogation, something the United States has done only twice with Islamic State prisoners. Both were later moved to Kurdish prisons.
The assumption is that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government or the Iraqi Kurdish forces will hold and, if appropriate, prosecute any suspected foot soldiers and sympathizers they capture.
“We’re not equipped for long-term detention,” said Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the American military forces in Baghdad. “We’re not set up here for that, so we’re not in that business.”
It is not clear to me what would happen to ISIS forces captured on Syrian territory by moderate rebels who are also fighting the Syrian government. It doesn’t seem likely to me that they would transfer the detainees to the Iraqi government (but I don’t know), and they surely won’t transfer the detainees to the Syrian government. And it is unclear to me whether these rebels will have the infrastructure necessary to run their own detention program.