Today's New York Times reports that the Pentagon plans to build a 40-acre detention facility in Afghanistan to replace the aging temporary facility there and possibly house detainees if Guantanamo Bay is closed. Currently prisoners are held in either a converted hangar or wire-mesh pens surrounded by concertina, and the Bagram Air Base facility is overcrowded. Plans call for a semi-permanent facility of quonset huts and administrative buildings, surrounded by its own perimeter wall, with the ability to house both the current detainee population and any additional prisoners netted by operations in Afghanistan or the closure of Guantanamo Bay.
This plan has met with skepticism on Capitol Hill, and it has renewed many fundamental questions about American strategy in Afghanistan. But it's a good idea -- one we should have pursued long ago. Our unwillingness to commit to the fight in Afghanistan, to devote resources and to build for the long haul, has hurt our efforts there.
Detention operations matter a lot in counterinsurgency -- the practitioners call it "counterinsurgency inside the wire." In his treatise on counterinsurgency, David Galula describes the importance of treating detainees humanely, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because doing so can often win detainees over to your side. In Iraq for the past two years or so, Task Force 134 has experimented with this approach and achieved modest success -- a marked improvement over the failed detention model used there before.
A similar approach is needed in Afghanistan. But it will take a newer facility, a secure one capable of providing humane treatment and housing for detainees.
And then there's the issue of Gitmo. The current presidential candidates say they want to close the site. But then what? Many of the detainees can be released, according to Ben Wittes' forthcoming analysis of the population there, but a significant number must also still be held. Moving those captured in Afghanistan to a secure facility in Afghanistan makes sense.
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