Saturday, August 25, 2007

Behind the Surge: Mass Imprisonment and our Strategy in Iraq

Only in its fantasy moments of "mission accomplished" and "shock and Awe" has the "war on terror" succeeded in escaping its intellectual roots in the war on crime. The Baghdad surge is only the latest of those fantasy moments. In the fantasy, the surge is about American forces obtaining enough strength to overwhelm the insurgents and death squads whose terrible toll on Baghdad's civilians was supposed to have been what justified the troop buildup. In real time however, accumulating right behind the surge, is a rapidly growing population of prisoners. According to Thom Shanker's reporting in the New York Times, the surge has produced a fifty percent increase in the number of detainees under US control, to 24,500 from around 16,000 in February.

The vast majority of the detainees are Iraqi men of Sunni background. Most are suspected of setting or aiding in the setting of the roadside bombs that have produced most of the US casualties in Iraq (note the focus on suppressing US casualties). Like the US prison population, the US Iraqi prison population keeps growing despite releasing lots of its inmates. More than 3 thousand have been released since the beginning of 2007, with the average length of detention being approximately a year. While there is no indication at this point of any repetition of the abusive tactics at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, there is also little reason to believe that the US can mass imprison its way out of insurgents.

Here in California, where the majority of state prison admissions are men already on parole who can be sent back for up to a year with a minimum of legal procedure, the system has regularly faced severe overcrowding problems despite building dozens of new prisons. While no one believes a year back in prison will alter the life patterns that are producing the behavior the state seeks to suppress, neither can the state muster the political will to question the basic strategy of mass imprisoning a troubled population.

A more immediate parallel for Iraq is the Israeli use of mass imprisonment against the Palestinian intifada brilliantly described by Jeffrey Goldberg in his book Prisoners detailing his own work in an Israeli prison for Palestinian militants and later as a journalist interviewing many of the same militants. The strategy of mass imprisoning young Palestinian men believed to be involved in Palestinian militancy has gone on since the 1980s and has produced a permanent problem of managing a large mass of resistant prisoners whose captivity is a constant provocation to the larger Palestinian population. Even more ominously for Israel, the strategy of mass imprisonment has shown no ability to cut the strength of the militants or move them toward compromise.

The age old prison paradox is repeating itself in Iraq. Echoing centuries of prison observers and reformers, Shanker observers.

But the detention system itself often serves as a breeding ground for the insurgency and a training opportunity for those who, after they are released, may attack Iraqi or American-led forces, military officers say.

It may be that there is no good alternative for the surge than to produce prisoners (the alternative of deliberate killing of non-resistant arrestees is hopefully too abhorrent to be considered, even for this administration). If so, however, it is another reason to question whether American strategy should continue banking on the surge.

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