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The New Gitmos By: Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Very few captured fighters are sent to Guantanamo’s detention facility these days. The last transfer of any significance was in September 2006 with the 14 famous high-value detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. Now days most captured combatants are held in the country in which they were apprehended. There are, for example, detention facilities in Afghanistan, the largest in Bagram. And, as one might imagine, there are several facilities in Iraq, which combined hold a total of approximately 23,000 enemy combatants.

In an interview with Brigadier General Michael Nevin from Iraq on February 28, it became clear that the percentage of outside al-Qaeda fighters is shifting dramatically downward. General Nevin noted, “the inflow of foreign fighters has slowed to a trickle.” He credited this with tighter border security measures and a transfer of allegiance of the population from the insurgents to the Iraqi government. “We now hold about 252 foreigners in our detention facilities,” Nevin stated. Of the group Nevin acknowledged that there are a “significant number” of Saudi nationals, but he is quick to add that “fighters from 22 different countries, some from the other side of the globe,” are being held in Iraqi detention facilities.

All of these facilities are run by the Coalition forces under the authority of the United Nations resolution that brought about the expulsion of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The main facility is at Camp Bucha, located in the south near the port city of Um Kassar. Others, including Camp Cropper, are located in Baghdad and north of the city. As commander of the 177th Military Police Brigade, General Nevin is responsible for the care and safety of the detainees and those US forces charged with securing them.

Nevin told that conditions had deteriorated more than a year ago. “Violence – detainee-on-detainee, and detainee-on-guard, had spiked,” he said. “Further there were riots, demonstrations, and overall very difficult conditions.” At that time Marine Major General Douglas M. Stone came on the scene and “turned everything around.” “General Stone had a very perceptive idea,” Nevin recounted. “He recognized that at some time in the future we were going to have to release most of these detainees back into society. Therefore he took the view of treating them as a counterinsurgency problem, the same perspective we from which we looked at the overall populace of Iraq. We had to win them over, employ population engagement techniques, set up review processes for their detention, and institute other reforms.”

At Stone’s direction these reforms began almost immediately. But no one was forced to participate. It is important to note that all detention training programs are voluntary. Detainees have the option of signing up for various educational and skills improvement programs without pressure or prejudice. Faced with the alarming statistic that fully 70 percent of the detainee population was actually or functionally illiterate, Stone directed that programs began immediately to teach basic, essential reading and writing skills to detainees. This has been enormously successful. Other academic skills programs have been added and have been accredited by the Iraqi Ministry of Education.

Nevin noted, “it is possible for a detainee to get a certificate that will be recognized by the Ministry of Education so that he can be released from one of our facilities and enrolled directly into an institution of higher learning.” Do these kinds of programs work? Nevin cited statistics that show that less than 1 detainee in 1,000 is recaptured. It is an amazingly low recidivism rate.

“A lot of these guys might have gotten themselves involved in the insurgency because of peer pressure, unemployment issues, or misguided religious fervor,” Nevin said. “Our programs give them a chance to fix the mess they’re in and get back into society.” A key course offered is a Religious Discussion program, which offers an alternative interpretation to Islamic scriptures to the harsh, violence-exalting doctrine of the fundamentalists.

There are also voluntary vocational, skill, and academic training programs designed to prepare a detainee for employment outside prison. One of the most frustrating things for a lot of young Iraqi males is lack of purpose. These programs are designed to help provide them with skill sets that can open a peaceful future as an alternative to picking up an AK-47 and fighting endlessly.

A major reform in the system is known as the Multi-National Review Committee. This is a group of Coalition officers who review detainee files and conduct hearings to ascertain their continued status. In other words, should this person be held because he poses a danger, or is he eligible for release back to the community? Detainees have the right to be represented at these hearings and to make statements on their own behalf. The presence of the MNRCs has been of great help in reducing levels of violence induced by a sense of frustration and helplessness. In many cases detainees will cite their participation in the voluntary instructional programs as evidence that they have reformed and ought to be released. Many are released.

Family visits are also encouraged and facilitated. “There were more than 2,000 family visits in the month of January,” Nevin reported, “and that has helped immeasurable with improving detainee morale.”

The 177th Brigade, Nevin noted, is not responsible for interrogation of any detainees. That function is conducted by skilled military intelligence personnel. None of the detainees are subject to torture nor abuse, and even when transferred to military intelligence units temporarily for interrogation sessions, the detainees are continually watched by MP specialists and escorts.

Asked if there was any direct links or communications with the detention facility at Guantanamo, Cuba, General Nevin said, “Only what we read in reports.”

Eventually all of these detainees and the facilities that house them will be turned over to the Iraqi government for management. To that end, Iraqi units are now being trained in methods of humane detention and facility management. But until the time when the Multi-National Force relinquishes its mandate, primarily U.S. forces will continue to staff the detention facilities.

Detention of enemy combatants is a major factor in a counterinsurgency, but it is usually under-reported because it does not seem glamorous or exciting. It is encouraging to see that progress is being made on this front that can be key to turning so many former insurgents into good citizens.

It is absolutely no shock that none of this was reported in the New York Times, The Washington Post, or the L.A. Times.

Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu has been an Army Green Beret lieutenant colonel, as well as a writer, popular speaker, business executive and farmer. His most recent book is Separated at Birth, about North and South Korea. He returned recently from an embed with soldiers in Iraq and has launched a web site called Support American Soldiers to assist traveling soldiers.

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