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