Detention: Operations in Afghanistan

Are We Facing an ISIS Detention Mess?

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, September 22, 2014, 11:17 PM

Over at Newsweek, Jeff Stein wonders: "What Will U.S. Forces Do With ISIS Prisoners?"

Among the many unresolved issues in the campaign to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, as it’s generally known, is what to do with prisoners in Iraq or Syria, should American special operators or U.S.-backed forces be lucky enough to capture any. How deeply will we be involved in interrogating them? Will we stand by as our “moderate” Syrian rebels and our Iraqis “partners,” as the administration now calls them, go to work on prisoners? Where will detainees be held, and for how long? How will we enforce our newly embraced ban on torture, when the Iraqi security forces we’re advising employ mutilation and murder as a matter of course?

To say all this is a work-in-progress is an understatement.

I'm not sure that nearly as much of putative U.S. detention policy is realistically in play as Stein suggests. For one thing, an air campaign does not net captives. As long as U.S. force is largely a matter of air power and Iraqi and Syrian rebel forces are working the ground, Stein's question will answer itself: U.S. forces won't have ISIS prisoners, though the U.S. will have to look the other way as abuses of captives take place that our forces would not tolerate. Even if U.S. forces do get involved in special forces operations, as long as the numbers of U.S. forces involved remain small, they can leave whatever detention operations arise to local forces---keeping, perhaps a small number of high value detainees with immediate tactical intelligence and transferring a small number of others to U.S. law enforcement for prosecution.

A problem only arises if the U.S. ground mission grows substantially, and there too we actually have a model---one honed in the latter years in Afghanistan, where the United States and ISAF forces transferred the vast majority of detention operations to Afghan forces, keeping only a narrow swath of theater internment in its own hands. It wasn't pretty. A lot of detainees were treated worse for the U.S.'s disengagement from detention operations. But it is almost surely what the United States will do if it finds itself coming into possession of more than a small handful of cases.