U.S. adopts reintegration strategy to subdue Afghan insurgency

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010

KHOST, AFGHANISTAN -- They had spent up to two years in U.S. detention, and now freedom was theirs for the price of a thumbprint. Seven Afghan men, each accused of ties to insurgents, would be allowed to simply walk away if they would pledge before their village elders -- and on pieces of parchment prepared for the occasion -- that they would stay out of trouble.

All seven quickly left their mark on the documents. But had they truly reformed? One of them, asked to forswear violence before a crowd of Afghan elders and U.S. officers at a release ceremony in this eastern town, seemed to dodge the question.

"I am a Muslim, and I would never do anything against Islam," said the ex-detainee, a bearded 26-year-old named Yusouf.

The release, which included shiny new cellphones given as parting gifts, was another in a series of high-stakes experiments to find out whether the insurgency in Afghanistan can be broken by reintegrating former combatants into their communities, rather than holding them indefinitely.

In recent months, U.S.-run detention camps -- hated by many Afghans as symbols of occupation -- have undergone a transformation aimed at putting the more pliable detainees on a path toward reentering Afghan society. The main internment center at Bagram air base was closed late last year and replaced with a facility that features inmate gardening plots, a playground for visiting children and classrooms for teaching reading and math as well as trade skills.

Detainees deemed ready to be weaned from the insurgency are flown home for a formal release ceremony in which local officials and relatives accept responsibility for keeping them straight.

The new approach has its critics. Some current and former officers involved in Afghan detentions say they fear that many of the former detainees will quickly return to their old ways, even if only because the Taliban's pay is better. But of the scores of detainees released, only a fraction have been rearrested, U.S. officials say.

U.S. and NATO officials say they think the new strategy is the right one, despite the obvious risks. Before it closed, the detention camp at Bagram was a frequent target for criticism because of overcrowding and because -- according to some American commanders in Afghanistan -- it had become a breeding ground for extremism. Military officials acknowledged in interviews that reports of abuses at U.S. detention camps also had provided the Taliban with a powerful recruiting tool.

"You can't kill or detain your way out of an insurgency," said Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, deputy commander of Joint Task Force 435, which was created last fall to oversee U.S. detainment operations in Afghanistan. "For us, reintegration is the new center of gravity."

New facility, approach

Until late last year, most suspected insurgents captured in Afghanistan were housed in a converted hangar known as the Bagram Theater Internment Facility, on the grounds of one of the largest U.S. air bases in the country.

Bagram, home to more than 600 detainees, had been tarnished by repeated allegations of abuse, including accounts of fatal beatings of two Afghan men in 2002. In recent years, American commanders had begun to question whether U.S. policies at Bagram were feeding the insurgency, rather than weakening it.

It was partly at the direction of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, now the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, that Bagram was ordered closed and another facility, known as Parwan, built at the edge of the airfield a few hundred yards away. Parwan can hold up to 1,000 inmates, and although it also has interrogation cells, guard towers and razor-wire fencing, it differs starkly from its predecessor.

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