Planning for Detention

by Deborah Pearlstein

Picking up on Jens’ post about the Administration’s apparent lack of plans for holding detainees picked up in Iraq/Syria, I too found the Times report troubling. In part I suspect it was because I was immediately reminded of one of the findings of the many Pentagon investigative reports issued after the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib and other U.S. detention facilities in Iraq. All apart from criticisms of changes in policy and legal interpretation, some of the harshest blame for the widespread nature of the abuse was the total failure of preparation. In particular, according to the report prepared by Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Jones, tasked with investigating the Abu Ghraib Prison and the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade in Iraq: “[P]re-war planning [did] not include[] planning for detainee operations.” The finding always seemed stunning to me, given the months long (or longer) lead up to the 2003 invasion, and the certainty from the beginning that the war was going to involve a significant U.S. commitment of resources, including ground troops. But the Pentagon was of course then laboring under Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s preference for keeping forces light, insisting that it was possible to minimize the amount of supplies and surrounding support required to overthrow the regime. Of all the lessons out of the 2003 invasion and the years that followed, it seemed to me the failure of that attack-now-plan-later approach was among the clearest.

The latest U.S. engagement in Iraq and Syria is of course in key respects different. U.S. troops are there, we have maintained, to support the Iraqis in their efforts against ISIL. Our commitment of ground “personnel” has been steadily growing (making Congress’ failure to authorize the use of force in this new conflict even more problematic than it already was), but it is far, far from anything like the 2003 invasion and prolonged occupation. All the same, it is not as though we don’t have a series of models from past conflicts for how to handle the inevitable detention problem – models ranging from our own establishment of vast detention operations (in, e.g. World War II and after 9/11) to shared arrangements with allies (in, e.g. Vietnam and the 1991 Gulf War). All of these models have had issues, but some far far fewer than others. I got curious a few years back so finally did some digging and wrote up this little survey. Here, for example, is 1991 in sum.

Between January 22, 1991, when the first prisoner was captured, and May 2, 1991, when the United States transferred the final prisoner from its custody, U.S. detention facilities processed nearly 70,000 detainees, including through the use of battlefield hearings on prisoner status pursuant to Article 5 of the Geneva Convention (III)…. At the outset of hostilities, the United States quickly secured military-to-military agreements with allies France and the United Kingdom, setting forth the process to be followed by any capturing forces in processing prisoners of war or other detainees, initially through U.S. detention or medical facilities in theater. Although American military police and combat engineers raced to build prison facilities in theater from scratch, the United States also undertook a separate agreement with Saudi Arabia that authorized the subsequent transfer of many of these prisoners to existing Saudi facilities. By the end of the conflict, more than 35,000 prisoners were held in U.S. facilities, with 63,000 more held in Saudi Arabia…. Ultimately, the vast majority of prisoners in Saudi Arabia were repatriated to Iraq under ICRC auspices after Saddam Hussein issued a general amnesty. In all events, all prisoners had been transferred from U.S. custody by May 2, 1991. On August 23, the ICRC announced that the repatriation of Iraqi prisoners was complete. And the ICRC concluded that the “treatment of Iraqi prisoners of war by U.S. forces was the best compliance with the Geneva Conventions by any nation in any conflict in history.”

Don’t be misled, there were plenty of issues post-1991 (including controversy surrounding the resettlement of some Iraqi prisoners/refugees in the United States, described elsewhere in the piece), and plenty more differences between that conflict and this. But particularly as this Administration barrels toward transition, with no chance U.S. involvement in the region will have come to an end by January, now’s the time to put pen to paper with the allies, in the region and beyond, who share the anti-ISIL goal. Securing commitments, to resources and to upholding the detainee protections required by law, is tough. But not nearly as tough as paying the human rights and strategic costs of detention without a plan.

http://opiniojuris.org/2016/05/13/planning-for-detention/

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  1. […] that one can avoid detention operations on the battlefield by not wanting to detain, and by not planning for detention, is a recipe for disaster. Planning is needed because, firstly, detention operations aren’t […]