Thursday, December 20, 2007

Arrested Development

One of the biggest factors driving the insurgency in Iraq has been our ham-handed approach toward the Iraqi populace. In an insurgency, the support of the populace is the ultimate prize--lose that, and you lose the war. General Petraeus' much-vaunted counterinsurgency operations were supposed to address this issue head-on, and they have, up to a point. But one of the most glaring examples of our occupation behaving counter-productively has been our detention operations, where the policy seems to have been to arrest as many people as possible on whatever grounds are handy.

I'm not writing about this from the outside. In 2004-2005, and to a lesser extent this year, I have had close, inside contact with the detention programs in Iraq. I lived and worked at Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons and saw firsthand how mass arrests have negatively affected our image over here. One of the most common refrains I have heard from Iraqis is that the Americans arrest them for no reason, then release them later without even bringing any charges. I would bet a year's salary that there isn't a single Iraqi who hasn't had this happen to someone close to him. It's what they have come to expect from us.

Now Major General Douglas Stone is seeking to change all that. (Link via Iraq Newsladder.) He's finally making the argument that many of us were making back when the war started: if you arrest innocent people, then keep them locked up with genuine badguys, they won't come out on the other end with a positive opinion of you. Or, as General Conway said after hearing out Gen. Stone, "If you roll up 150 guys in a village and you don't have probable cause, you've just created 150 little terrorists."

Actually, it's worse than that. Because it's not just the 150 guys you arrested who radicalize, it's also their families and friends. Moreover, you've just made anyone who has ever heard their story (and again, EVERYONE has) that much less likely to believe you when you roll through town distributing leaflets about how wonderful the "justice" and "democracy" you've graciously bestowed upon them is. If you want to know why the Iraqis have been so hesitant to jump aboard the America bandwagon, maybe this has something to do with it.

Which is what is so confounding about the fact that Petraeus himself planned for 40,000 detainees as part of the surge. Did Petraeus actually believe that locking up 40,000 people would somehow make the Iraqis like us more? How does it make sense that, at the very same time we began talking with insurgents and indeed fighting alongside them, we implemented a policy of arresting them at an even higher rate than previously? It simply makes no sense.

Any idiot could see three years ago that our detention policies were actively fueling the insurgency. Petraeus' counter-insurgency tactics were supposed to address the areas where our actions were fueling the resistance. I'm glad that someone is finally in charge who seems to get it, but why on earth has it taken four and a half years to reach such an obvious conclusion?

(Cross-posted at Decline and Fall)