U.S. Gen. Urges Release Of Bagram's Detainees

Some 600 prisoners are held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. They are mostly Afghans suspected of taking part in the insurgency. An American Marine general now says most of those being held pose no threat to U.S. or Afghan forces, and they can be released.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's talk about another story that involves transparency and fairness among other things. Americans in Afghanistan are contemplating setting hundreds of prisoners free. About 600 people are in custody at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Most were captured on suspicion of taking part in the insurgency.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now, a U.S. Marine general is saying that most of those being held pose no threat to the U.S. or Afghan forces. Major General Doug Stone thinks they can go home.

We'll both talk now with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Renee.

INSKEEP: And Tom, good morning. I - I just want to ask - given that these men, some of them have been held for years with no criminal charges, no access to a lawyer - what would prompt the U.S. Military to recommend, now, that they could be freed - many of them.

BOWMAN: Well, General Stone was sent over to Afghanistan earlier this summer by General David Petraeus, the overall commander of Afghanistan and Iraq. And Petraeus liked the way Stone revamped the detention centers in Iraq, how he changed them for the better.

So, Stone went to Afghanistan with a team, interviewed detainees, visited detention facilities. Now, he won't talk about the report because it hasn't been released, but those he briefed tell us that Stone estimates as many as 400 of the 600 held at Bagram can be released. Many of these men were swept up in raids - have little connection to the insurgency.

Now, General Stone has written a detailed 700-page report about how to change both the U.S. and Afghan detention facilities. And he's briefed his report to top leaders in Kabul and Washington.

MONTAGNE: And, Tom - okay, so, Stone wants to virtually get out of the detention business in Afghanistan; what does he want to do instead?

BOWMAN: Well, he wants to focus on rehabilitation, just like he did in Iraq where he ran the detention system there. He had 21,000 detainees. But he found that most of these Iraqi detainees - as many as two-thirds - were not radicals, but mostly illiterate and jobless young people. Some were innocents and others worked for the insurgency because they just needed the money.

And Stone worried that detaining them was only making matters worse, actually turning them into radicals. And here is explaining that view in an NPR interview last year from Iraq.

Major General DOUG STONE: Now you've got a bunch of moderates who really shouldn't be in there in the first place. And I can hold them forever, but eventually they're going to say, why are you holding me? What's the fairness in this? And eventually they'll say something about America that we don't want to hear. They're going to say, wait a minute, you're not here to better the population, you're here to conquer us and you're taking me hostage.

BOWMAN: So, what Stone did in Iraq is he set apart the moderates from the hard-line radicals. He brought in teachers, taught trades like carpentry and masonry, skills needed to rebuild the country, and he also allowed visits by family members.

But the key was that he set up these review boards of U.S. officers to look at each case, and he ended up releasing thousands back to their tribes in Iraq. And the program continues to this day, and it's considered a big success.

INSKEEP: So, that was how he was able to change things in Iraq after some scandalous situations there. But what are the odds of doing this in a different country, Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, senior leaders are looking at this right now, and we're told that General Stan McChrystal, the commander there, will at least address the issue of Bagram in his assessment, due in the coming weeks. But there are really big hurdles. The Afghan prison, justice and legal systems are far less developed than even in Iraq. So, revamping their system, even creating some type of a rehabilitation program, would take some time.

Also, officers I talk with are skeptical of Stone's hope that the U.S. can get out of the detention business in the next year or 18 months. And the other thing is, even to begin this, to put this into effect, you'll need more U.S. and military civilian personnel, advisors and the like, to make this happen -and we're told hundred of millions of dollars.

MONTAGNE: And, Tom, just a last question: can the U.S. take a chance on releasing people in Afghanistan who might join the fight against them?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, some officers would say no. That the focus right now, as you know, Renee, is bringing in more U.S. troops to clear and hold areas where the Taliban is resurgent. And some officers say that's the effort now, and this ambitious plan of General Stone's to revamp the detention facilities will just have to wait.

Stone would counter that by saying, listen, this is the best way to do it. It worked in Iraq. To win Afghan trust and to blunt the Taliban insurgency, you're just going to have to deal with it.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman talking about a recommendation to release hundreds of prisoners in U.S. custody in Afghanistan.

This is NPR News.

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General Advises Releasing Afghan Detainees

Maj. Gen. Doug Stone i i

hide captionMaj. Gen. Doug Stone (shown here in Iraq in 2007) is a Marine reservist who ran detainee operations in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. He has now written a detailed report that recommends the release of hundreds of prisoners at a U.S.-run detention facility in Afghanistan.

Pool/Getty Images
Maj. Gen. Doug Stone

Maj. Gen. Doug Stone (shown here in Iraq in 2007) is a Marine reservist who ran detainee operations in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. He has now written a detailed report that recommends the release of hundreds of prisoners at a U.S.-run detention facility in Afghanistan.

Pool/Getty Images

An American general has produced a detailed report that says as many as 400 prisoners at a U.S.-run detention facility at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan can be released, as there is little evidence against them and they pose no threat.

About 600 detainees, mostly Afghan citizens, are being held in the Bagram detention facility. Many have been held for years, without any idea of the charges against them or access to lawyers.

Maj. Gen. Doug Stone, a Marine reservist who ran detainee operations in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, wants the U.S. military to get out of the detention business in Afghanistan within the next 12-18 months, according to people knowledgeable about Stone's briefings to top U.S. officials.

In his report, Stone recommends that the U.S. military and Afghan government revamp the detention system, focusing on rehabilitation rather than the warehousing of prisoners.

Findings To Top Officials

Stone has outlined his views to the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal; Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who is a special envoy for the region; and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

McChrystal is expected to address the issue of detention facilities in his much-anticipated assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, due within the next several weeks. It's uncertain, though, whether he is willing to adopt Stone's ambitious agenda.

Stone declined to comment to NPR and referred questions about his 700-page report to U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., which is in charge of military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The rehabilitation and educational plans are included in [Stone's] recommendations," says Lt. Cmdr. Bill Speakes, a Central Command spokesman. "Right now we are evaluating courses of actions about how we move forward."

Gen. David Petraeus, who heads Central Command, sent Stone to Afghanistan this summer to assess detainee operations. Stone took a team that included officials from the Justice Department, language experts and others. They spent about six weeks reviewing the facilities and interviewing detainees.

The Afghan government is holding some 14,000 detainees. Each year dozens of detainees are turned over from Bagram to Afghan facilities where they continue to languish, human-rights groups say.

Growing Anger Among Afghans

Human-rights groups and other critics say that the continued incarceration of detainees at Bagram is a source of growing anger among Afghans, second only to civilian casualties that result from U.S. military operations.

Sahr MuhammedAlly, a senior associate for law and security at Human Rights First, says Stone gave her an overview of his report but declined to offer specifics since the report has not yet been released. "I think Gen. Stone's recommendations focus a lot on how to process people out of Bagram sooner," she says. MuhammedAlly says Stone also urges reforms to the detention system "to reduce chances they will join up with the insurgency by offering skills training programs and rehabilitation programs."

Stone implemented similar reforms when he ran detainee operations in Iraq, handling some 21,000 prisoners at Camp Cropper in Baghdad and Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

Speakes says it was too early to say how many detainees could be released but that separating prisoners from those who are clearly hard-liners makes sense. "We certainly see the need that we are not treating them all the same," Speakes says. "We don't want to give the Taliban a chance to recruit them."

Separating Moderates From Radicals

In an interview last year with NPR, Stone offered an explanation of his philosophy. Stone said he believed that an insurgency only worsens by continuing to hold detainees without access to hearings. Detainees who have little connection to the insurgency can be radicalized by hard-line elements within the detention center over time, he said.

"Now you've got a bunch of moderates who really shouldn't be in there in the first place. And I can hold them forever but eventually they're going to say, 'Why are you holding me? What's the fairness in this?' And eventually they'll say something about America we don't want to hear. They'll say, 'You're not here to better the population. You're here to conquer us and you're taking me hostage.' "

Stone separated moderates from jihadists in the Iraqi detention camps. He brought in moderate clerics to teach them about Islam and teachers to instruct prisoners in in-demand skills like carpentry and masonry.

He also established review boards of U.S. officers and released thousands of detainees back to their tribes in Iraq. That program continues and is considered a success, even by some senior officers — including the current commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno — who were initially skeptical about it.

Is Plan Too Costly, Unworkable?

Senior military officials are looking at implementing similar changes in Afghanistan, but there are big hurdles. The Afghan prison, justice and legal systems are far less developed than those in Iraq, so revamping the Afghan institutions would take some time, officials said.

As a result, some senior officers say Stone's hope of having the U.S. get out of the detention business within the next year to 18 months is ambitious and may be unworkable. They also say his estimate of being able to release up to two-thirds of the 600 detainees at Bagram may be too high.

Returning detainees to their families or tribes could be more challenging in Afghanistan, a poor country with more remote areas. Transportation and locating families of detainees could be difficult. And it would most likely be hard for most families to even make the long trek to visit loved ones at Bagram, officers said.

Some officers say this effort to revamp the detention facilities may have to wait. Putting Stone's plans into effect would probably require more U.S. military and civilian personnel, along with perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, they say.

Skeptics also raise the question of whether, in the midst of an American military buildup to fight the resurgent Taliban, the U.S. should take a chance on releasing people who might join the fight against them.

But Stone is telling people that this kind of effort worked in Iraq. And that rehabilitating and then releasing detainees is one of the best ways to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and blunt the insurgency.

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