Commentary Magazine


A Case for Tactical Prisoner Releases

I sympathize with conservatives such as Bethany Mandel who are outraged by reports that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been releasing some insurgent commanders from its detention facility–as revealed in a Washington Post article. I too am opposed to unnecessary and counterproductive releases of detainees–based on nothing more than wishful thinking–who could return to the battlefield to kill more Americans or Afghans. But that doesn’t mean all prisoner releases are ill-advised.

In Iraq, one of the key elements that made the “surge” so successful in 2007-2008 was both locking up and releasing lots of detainees: locking them up when they were seen as contributing to instability and releasing them when such releases were seen as furthering stability. Specifically, as Sunnis vowed to turn against al-Qaeda, the release of their kinsmen from American detention was a powerful “carrot” that, along with lucrative contracts for security and other services, could reward and encourage their change of thinking. By some lights this might be seen as negotiating with terrorists–and so it was. Or, more specifically, negotiating with former terrorists. Not all such deals panned out–in some cases dangerous men were released, and they did not live up to their word to stop fighting. But this was a risk that Gen. David Petraeus judged worth taking because he understood that U.S. forces did not have the will or ability to lock up all troublemakers indefinitely. Sooner or later the Americans would leave Iraq. Better to release some insurgent leaders on our terms when it could help to win the battle, rather than wait a few years and see them all released anyway.

We do not have the full story of prisoner releases in Afghanistan, but based on the evidence presented in the Post article, the program appears to be modeled on the one in Iraq–and to be based, as in Iraq, on a hard-headed calculation by local commanders of what incentives they need to offer to local tribes and factions to come over to the government’s side. The only release actually described in the Post article involved a local leader of Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin in Wardak province whose followers had agreed to start fighting against the Taliban–another insurgent faction. This was precisely the type of “split the insurgency” mentality that made possible the success of the surge in Iraq. Under those circumstances, it would seem reasonable to release a HiG leader as a reward for his cooperation against our mutual enemies.

This type of release, made in return for real cooperation on the ground, is very different from the deal being contemplated by the Obama administration for the release of senior Taliban commanders from Guantanamo in return, it would seem, for nothing more than a willingness of the Taliban to engage in peace talks. That would appear to be a one-sided exchange which would signal weakness to our enemies who are far from defeated–and very different from the type of tactical prisoner releases that make sense when erstwhile enemies are prepared to switch sides or stop fighting.


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