Constabulary Operations and Prison Overcrowding

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 8 months ago

A consistent theme presents itself in Multinational Force press releases when raids and other kinetic operations are discussed.  Many insurgents choose to die rather than surrender, and when they make this choice, they die.  When they surrender, the Multinational Forces have captured “high value targets and remanded them for prosecution” through whatever judicial process Iraq can claim to have.  Or perhaps not.

Azzaman is routinely propagandistic, contextually biasing the facts on the ground in Iraq by their coverage.  But when the reader can see through the propaganda, the facts are useful.  I began monitoring the prison situation in Iraq some months ago, and this interest peaked when I read the March 17, 2007, account by Azzaman of the current situation of the prisons.

The population of prisons in Iraq has soared in recent months with tens of thousands of Iraqis currently in U.S. custody without trial.

U.S. troops and Iraqi government are investing heavily in the construction of prisons in the country with more than 100,000 Iraqis currently behind bars.

A parliamentary investigation commission has found that U.S. troops alone now detain more than 61,000 Iraqis and the figure is expected to swell as the Americans press ahead with their military operations.

More than 50,000 Iraqis were reported to have been arrested in the past four weeks as part of the joint U.S.-Iraqi military campaign to subdue Baghdad.

U.S. troops detain Iraqis merely on suspicion. Once detained, Iraqis may stay indefinitely as they are denied access to lawyers and Iraqi courts and government have no right to question U.S. troops’ actions.

Even Iraqi troops operations and activities now fall beyond the Iraqi judicial system as the country has been placed under emergency rule under which the courts have no power to question what the security forces do.

The last two paragraphs are false.  On June 15, 2007, Owen and Bing West had an insightful and hard hitting commentary in the New York Times on these issues.  They began by criticizing the strategy.

WHILE waiting to see if the Iraq surge strategy pays off, President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have shown Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the door and brought in Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute as the new White House “war czar.? Well, they can shift senior leadership all they want, but unless they give our troops patrolling the streets the tools they need, our leaders are going to see this strategy fizzle.

Part of the problem was that when the military surge was announced, it became commonplace for officials to assert that political compromise, not military force, would determine the outcome of the war. This vacuous idea would startle George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, to mention only a few unlikely bedfellows who forged success during an insurgency.

Buying time with American lives is not a military mission. No platoon commander tells his soldiers to go out and tread water so the politicians can talk. The goal of American soldiers is to identify and kill or capture the Shiite death squads and Sunni insurgents.

Here Owen and Bing West, whether intentionally or not, call into question the whole notion of constabulary operations as part of counterinsurgency.  They point to kinetic operations against the enemy as the key to success.  By constabulary operations I am discussing here the mission of policing the population on a daily basis rather than the conduct of war, whether small or large wars, raids and room clearing or calling in air strikes.  After focusing much needed attention on census taking, population identification and control of the urban terrain, the West’s continue:

The other major defect we’ve seen in our military strategy is the consistent release of captured insurgents. Imprisonment is the dominant military weapon for quelling this insurgency. Vietnam was a shooting war; Iraq is a police arrest war. The insurgents learned years ago not to engage in firefights with American troops. American troops in Vietnam in 1968, for example, found that they killed 13 enemies for every one captured; in Iraq, one enemy is killed for every 10 captured.

Yet, according to Pentagon records, more than 85 percent of the suspected Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen detained are soon set free. The troops call it “catch and release.? The American and Iraqi jails now hold about 40,000 prisoners — by some estimates just half the number Saddam Hussein released from prison in the mass exodus of 2002. Texas, with a smaller population, has more than 170,000 in jail …

In our experience, it has worked this way: After an arrest, two soldiers must file affidavits, together with physical evidence and digital pictures, and then an American lawyer decides if the package is strong enough to withstand further review. About half of all detainees are released within 18 hours; the others are sent from battalion level to brigade level, where the evidence is re-examined, resulting in more releases.

Those detainees remaining are sent to a detention center where a combined board reviews the evidence again, and releases still more. After that, every six months a United States board must re-review the evidence in each case. Lastly, the detainee appears before an Iraqi judge, who in turn dismisses about half of the cases.

As for follow-up, before a detainee walks free, the American command sends notification to the battalion in the area where he was apprehended. But because many of the battalions have rotated back to the United States by this time, a new unit has to deal with the detainee.

Worse, there remains steady clamoring from both high-level Iraqi and American officials for yet another mass release (there have been several since 2003). To his credit, General David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, has resisted, and the result is prison overcrowding since the surge began. Yet neither the American government, mindful of the criticism of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, nor the Iraqi government wants to take the political heat of building more prisons.

Sorry, but we can’t let old mistakes be the cause of new ones. The scale of imprisonment must be doubled or tripled if we are serious about prevailing. There is no deterrence in Iraq today because most captured insurgents are released. We will never defeat an insurgency we allow to regenerate.

If we are going to engage in constabulary operations such as this, along with the detestable involvement of lawyers, then to neglect to furnish the troops with the necessary prisons to properly detain the captured insurgents is contrary to established moral principles.

  • Dominique R. Poirier

    I find that article and its subject interesting, indeed.

    About insurgents who choose to die but to surrender I cannot but wonder what Patrick Henry and Nathan Hale would say about that? On my side, and as long as we are talking about insurgence and not kamikaze, I perfectly understand the point of view of those insurgents who choose death.

    About prisons, I believe that their purpose is relevant to criminal law. About those who are jailed because they have been caught in flagrante delicto of insurgency I would consider other options which proved to be successful in Europe during WWI and WWII and elsewhere in the world during other times. I justify my point bellow.

    Time after time in Korea, American prisoners of war were aced with challenges to their sense of themselves as Americans that threatened to crack the armor of moral superiority like an eggshell, and often American cultural insularity, as expressed in the inability or unwillingness to eat unfamiliar food, led to death from malnutrition. But in the Chinese communist effort to win over or mold minds, the indoctrination of prisoners of war in North Korea was helped tremendously by the political ignorance of most G.I.; and by their interrogator’ deep knowledge of American culture. Instead of having relative insurance about a clear adversity, as in WWII, soldiers in Korea were left adrift, wondering who we were fighting for and why, how American interests, let alone American value, were being threatened.

    “The mind of the enemy and the will of its leaders is a target of far more importance than the bodies of his troops,? wrote Mao Zedong whose thoughts were largely inspired by Sun Tzu’s readings. And this applies to Iraqi insurgents as well; for they are human being as Americans are.

    The U.S. Army did a study on the effect of communist indoctrination on those held prisoner of war in North Korea. This study includes reports on the collaboration of prisoners with the enemy and has constituted the basis of a valuable book whose title is In Every War but One, and which was written by Eugene Kinkead.

    With an average of ninth grade education, remarks Eugene Kinkead, “not only the prisoners not know much about the history of communism, they didn’t know much about the U.S. either.?

    How about the education level of those insurgents in Iraq?

    Unable to understand how our system could be criticized, young enlisted men were vulnerable to criticism that took cherished ideals like freedom and self determination and argued that it was the United States, not the North Koreans or the Chinese, that was guilty of violating the basic political beliefs outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Just following orders was a different response to make after Nuremberg. Instead of fighters or freedom, pressed their interrogators, American soldiers were pawns of an undeclared war.

    Good idea!

    Earlier, the Bolsheviks used the Brest-Litovsk armistice and peace conference as a public forum for the propagation of their ideas, thus converting diplomatic relations with the enemy into a virtual Trojan horse.
    Throughout the negotiations the Foreign Office under Trotsky, the press bureau under Karl Radek, and the bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda under Boris Reinstein turned the full blast of their power against the German army.
    German newspapers, Die Fackel (The Torch) and Der Völkerfriede (The People’s Peace), were distributed to the soldiers of the centrals powers by the hundreds of thousands. Although themselves contemptuous of Wilson’s fourteen points, the Bolsheviks nevertheless distributed among German troops over a million copies of the speech in translation. German prisoners of war in Russia were harangued and indoctrinated so effectively that upon their return to the fatherland they were confined for thirty days in “political quarantine camps? and mentally “deloused? with patriotic literature. Nevertheless, throughout the spring and summer of 1918 prisoners brought back to Germany the infection bred of the revolution and propaganda to which they had been subjected in Russian prison camps since the November Revolution.


    They had drunk deeply of the heavy wine of freedom and sedition, they had seen the Russian army melt away before their eyes, and now they returned to their depots speaking a new language of peace and bred; and bringing with them a spirit of general insubordination. General Hoffmann said that the German army in Russia was so “rotten with Bolshevism? that he did not “dare transfer some of his divisions to the western front.?

    Hmmm (again).

    On the one hand, I acknowledge that insurgents in Iraq are ideologically committed people and not enlisted soldiers; but on the other we know that true believers and extremists are, in a large majority of cases, persons who are particularly receptive to political and religious ideas.

    That’s why mass movements are subject to interchangeability. When people are ripe for a mass movement –this applies in the case of insurgency in Iraq, in my own opinion– they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program. This explains why both Shi’a and Sunni, or example, are insurgents though they religious beliefs differ at some point.

    In pre-Hitlerian Germany it was often a tossup whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis. In the overcrowded pale of Czarist Russia the simmering Jewish population was ripe both for revolution and Zionism. In the same family one member would join the Revolutionaries and the other the Zionists. In Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann. Dr. Chaim Weizmann quotes a saying of his mother in those days:

    “(….) whatever happens I shall be well off. If Shemuel (the revolutionary son) is right, we shall all be happy in Russia; and if Chaim (the Zionist) is right, then I shall go to live in Palestine.?

    This receptivity of all movements does not always cease even after the potential true believer becomes the ardent convert of a specific movement. Where mass movements are in violent competition with each other, there are not infrequent instances of converts –even the most zealous— shifting their allegiance from one to the other.
    A Ali turning John is neither a rarity nor a miracle. In our day, each proselytizing movement seems to regard the zealous adherents of its antagonist as its own potential converts. Isn’t it?
    Hitler looked on the German communists as potential National Socialists: “The petit bourgeois social democrat and the trade-union boss will never make a national socialist but the communist always will,? Hilter wrote.
    Captain Röhm boasted that he could turn the reddest Communist into a glowing nationalist in four weeks. On the other hand, Karl Radek (him again) looked on the Nazi Brown Shirts (the S.A.) as a reserve or future communist recruits.

    Since all mass movements draw their adherents from the same type of humanity and appeal to the same type of mind, it follows that all mass movements are competitive, and the gain of one in adherents is the loss of all the others; and that all mass movements are interchangeable. It’s a act that deserves our attention, I believe.

    One mass movement readily transforms itself into another. A religious movement may develop into a social revolution or a nationalist movement; a social revolution into militant nationalism or a religious movement; a nationalist movement into a social revolution or a religious movement.

    The religious character of the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions is generally recognized. The hammer and the sickle and the swastika are in a class with the Cross. The ceremonial of their parades is the ceremonial of a religious procession. They have articles of faith, Saints martyrs and Holly sepulchers.
    The Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions –as mass and insurgent movements are in Iraq it seems to me– are also full blown nationalist movements. The Nazi revolution had been so from the beginning while the nationalism of the Bolshevik was a late development.

    The loyal reader of The Captain Journal will certainly notice that all I am saying here entertains certain continuity with my previous comment about the “David Kilcullen’s controversy.?

    But that’s not my point, yet.

    It’s just happen, I find, that the subject of beliefs is equally relevant to the question raised in this latest article Herschel Smith wrote. The difference lies in the possible profitable application of our knowledge in psychology and crowd behavior in the frame of the matter at hand.

    I am not a proponent of reeducation camps and brainwashing, but I question in revenge the usefulness or mere indefinite incarceration of insurgents for the sole sake of punishing and interrogate them while more interesting opportunities seem to be within immediate reach of our voice, if I may say so.

  • Herschel Smith


    You have made a sweeping and comprehensive comment that has made me think a bit more about the prison situation. Rarely do I want to write as much as would be required to fully flesh out my position on these types of issues. It would take too long to read, it would bore those who tried, and it may even bore me. That said, let’s expand these ideas a little.

    Your comment goes again to motive and whether imprisonment works, and works towards what end? This theme (motive, correction of behavior) is consistent with us and discussions about COIN.

    For the record, I do not believe in the healing, therapeutic or rehabilitative powers of imprisonment. More specifically, I do not believe that imprisonment can change a man’s soul (except perhaps for the worse). If it is claimed that imprisonment can modify behavior simply by impetus to avoid punishment, I agree, but still claim that this isn’t behavior modification from a change in moral constitution. It is little more than a Pavlovian experiment.

    I believe in restitution and retribution. If a man steals, he has offended another man, not society. He should pay back two or three fold. Violent crimes warrant the death penalty. The concept of prisons for rehabilitative purposes is a concoction of mankind, and it is an inefficient concoction at that.

    But given the litigious, post-modern society we live in along with the lawyers to gum up the works, we have what we have and must work with it. Let’s put this as simply as possible. For Iraq at the present, I do not believe that the “justice system” can handle the influx of prisoners, especially now that there is an offensive underway. The prisons are already overcrowded, and more will only make things worse.

    But what more prisons can do is delay the release of the hardest of the insurgents. Note the phrase “catch and release.” It comes from fishing. When you don’t keep them, you catch them, take them off the hook, and then release them into the water.

    This is how the solder and marine feel at the present. “Catch and release.” They are being released so quickly back into the environment that the environment hasn’t changed since they were last there.

    The goal of imprisonment, in the case of Iraq, is to hold them long enough that the environment is vastly different than when they went into prison. This difference, hopefully, is one in which their violence is not welcome, one in which a stable Iraq has become a reality. This may take three years. Or it may take six more years. Either way, we must construct the prisons to hold them and have the courage to do it. Catch and release will not work to end the insurgency.

You are currently reading "Constabulary Operations and Prison Overcrowding", entry #525 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Constabulary Actions,Iraq and was published June 19th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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