Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to Today.”
The Obama administration’s decision to send the Joint Special Operations Command into battle against the Islamic State is a small step toward getting rid of the counterproductive prohibition on “boots on the ground” — really a prohibition on U.S. troops going into combat — that has hindered attempts to defeat the terrorist state. The Special Operations task force that apparently will be stationed in Irbil in northern Iraq will not, by itself, be a game-changer. But it will be a real help, especially in gathering intelligence about the Islamic State.
Until now, the administration has been content to bomb the group. The problem is that dead men tell no tales. The Joint Special Operations Command will be able to capture high-level Islamic State operatives and, by interrogating them and seizing hard drives and other electronic devices and equipment, learn more about how the group operates. That, in turn, will propel further raids and bombing runs that will degrade Islamic State networks.
But what will happen to the Islamic State prisoners after they have been interrogated? In years past, the United States ran detention facilities in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but it has long since given them up. Will the United States reopen such a facility in Iraq? It could and probably should, but it’s unlikely that Baghdad would sign off, and the Obama administration probably won’t be willing to go forward on its own. And even if the United States were to reopen an Iraqi prison, that would not be a permanent solution. At some point, U.S. forces are likely to leave, whereupon they will have to either turn loose their detainees or transfer them somewhere else.
There is, however, a detention facility operated by the U.S. government that is ideal for holding captured Islamic State bigwigs — at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But President Obama refuses to make use of it. In fact, he is fighting to close the facility.
There is nothing wrong in principle with repatriating the 48 detainees currently held at Guantanamo who are judged as low security risks by U.S. intelligence agencies. But there are 59 other hard-core detainees, including self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who cannot be released. Many of them should be tried, either in the federal courts or military tribunals, which unfortunately have proved dysfunctional in practice. But others can neither be tried (because there is insufficient evidence to convict them in a court) nor be released (because credible intelligence indicates that they remain dangerous).
Presumably, many of the “high-value” Islamic State operatives captured in Iraq and Syria will fall into to this latter category; it is too much to expect that Special Operations forces operating on dangerous terrain will be able to accumulate sufficient evidence in every case to convict Islamic State leaders of crimes in a U.S. court or military tribunal. These Islamic State members will need to be held somewhere, and if there is no U.S. detention facility in Iraq, it’s hard to know where that would be. They can be held on a U.S. Navy ship for a limited period. Sooner or later, however, they will need a permanent home. The only real option if Guantanamo were closed would be a new holding facility on U.S. soil, but such an undertaking would be costly, and it would leave the question of what to do with hard-core detainees who are prohibited by Congress from being brought to the United States.
In short, Obama is choosing the worst possible time to close Guantanamo — just as the war against the Islamic State promises to deliver a new stream of captured terrorists into U.S. custody.
There is little doubt that the existence of the prison at Guantanamo has done some public-relations damage to the United States in the war on terrorism. But that damage, always limited, is largely in the past. There is little evidence that the existence of the facility is inspiring new recruits to terrorism — in contrast to the existence of the Islamic State, which is a big magnet for extremists.
Obama has already shown some welcome flexibility by rethinking his pledge to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the time he leaves office. He would perform a real public service if he were to similarly rethink his pledge to close the Guantanamo prison. In return, congressional Republicans should drop their reflexive opposition to trying any captured terrorists in federal court. If a case can be made to convict in a federal court, it should be. But if it can’t, and if a detainee is dangerous, he should remain at Guantanamo as long as the war on terrorism continues.