Politics & Policy

The New Counterinsurgency Front

A conversation with Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Colonel Lindsey Graham — the U.S. senator who holds an Air Force Reserve commission as a JAG (Judge Advocate General) officer — believes we are finally getting it right in Iraq: “Finally figuring it out,” he says.

Having been to Iraq eight times, twice in the capacity of his Air Force JAG duties, and having just returned over a week ago; Graham ought to know. His time spent in-country is hardly “the dog and pony show” suggested by Democrat Sen. (and former Marine officer) James Webb on Meet the Press.

Graham has worked in Iraq’s backcountry, and he’s been heavily involved in that country’s fledgling judiciary and penal/reconciliation systems — one of the keys to winning the counterinsurgency, he argues.

I ran into a uniformed and armed Graham last month while having lunch at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. As I wrote at “The Tank,” he gave me “that good ol’ Capitol Hill handshake and arm-squeeze, and said, ‘We’re winning this thing out here.’”

He believes it. Gen. David Petraeus “is brilliant,” he says. “The surge is working. Anbar has ‘awakened.’ And we’ve opened a new front.”

On Friday, Graham sat down with National Review Online, where he discussed the evolving Iraqi penal system, the reconciliation, and guarantor programs, and how all have opened a new, “extremely effective” front in our counterinsurgency effort.

W. THOMAS SMITH JR: How many prisoners do we currently hold in Iraq?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: We’ve got 21,000 prisoners at Camp Bucca [the detainee facility in southern Iraq near the Kuwaiti border], the theater internment facility. We’ve got another few thousand at Camp Cropper near Baghdad. Three or four years ago, we were projecting to have fewer than 2,000 prisoners. At this rate, we’ll have 30,000 easily by the end of the year.

SMITH: So capacity is a problem.

SEN. GRAHAM: Absolutely. We never envisioned having this many people in jail under our control. This doesn’t even count what the Iraqis have.

Look, the prisons used to be a place where we basically warehoused bad guys, and in doing that we were essentially creating an al Qaeda university. We were allowing some of the folks we picked up — who did things for the money, who were on the fringes — to be housed with hardcore terrorists. It created problems. You’ll recall, there were riots at some of the compounds.

One of my concerns has been — and I’ve been working on this since April — is what kind of process is required to hold someone indefinitely? We’ve got people who have been there for three-and-a-half years. Until recently, they’d never seen a panel. Never had a hearing. It was all done by paper file reviews. They were security detainees, and under the U.N. and article 78 of the Geneva Convention, an occupying force can detain people either in their homes or in an internment facility to protect the population as a whole.

A couple years ago, however, we changed our status from being occupiers to allies. Occupation has ended, but we were holding these people as if we were still occupiers.

So we needed a process that the U.N. couldn’t undercut — a bilateral process between us and the Iraqis — if we were going to hold these people for years, and some of them we may have to.

More importantly, we needed a process to strike at the heart of the insurgency.

Jails and prisons throughout history have been incubators for political and violent movements.

So we’ve come up with a completely new strategy at the facilities. At the heart of that strategy is an education component: The goal being to give everybody who is reconcilable a minimum of a fifth-grade education.

SMITH: Why fifth grade?

SEN. GRAHAM: That’s the requirement to work for the Iraqi government.

SMITH: What is the makeup of the prison population?

SEN. GRAHAM: Eight-five percent are Sunni, and this is a problem, because from a Sunni perspective some of them aren’t terrorists or insurgents: They are victims of the Shiia government. This is tough to deal with if you’re a Sunni politician. Now, of course, we are catching more bad guys from the Shiia militias. But we want to make sure that both the Sunni and Shiia understand if you are in our jails, it has nothing to do with who you are or your religious beliefs.

SMITH: So we’ve got a political problem here.

SEN. GRAHAM: We’ve actually got three primary problems: A political problem, a potential insurgent-recruiting problem, and — long term — we’ve got some legal problems.

SMITH: Legal because we cannot hold detainees forever?

SEN. GRAHAM: We need a better process for the ones we might have to hold forever.

The reality of this war is that some of these people are irreconcilable. They are hardcore al Qaeda types that if we let go, they’ll go right back to the fight. But not all detainees.

A week ago, I participated on two boards — composed of American military officers — where the detainee was interviewed. Under the old paperwork review boards, which were held in Baghdad, the release rate was eight to ten percent. The reviews were every 18 months, and the detainee never got to appear. Under the new process, the board meets every six months at the site. The detainee has a chance to tell his side of the story. The recommended release rate now is about 30 percent.

SMITH: How does this benefit our counterinsurgency efforts?

SEN. GRAHAM: By interviewing the detainee we are learning a lot more about the insurgency. What is happening in the general population — people coming forward with information — is now happening in jails.

SMITH: But some will argue the detainees will say anything for a get-out-of-jail-free card.

SEN. GRAHAM: We don’t let detainees out just because they tell us something. We’ve created a system that allows us to intelligently evaluate the threat, including input from the detainee. It’s like any other system: The better you behave, the better you cooperate, the more likely you’re going to benefit. And we can learn quickly from the file who has been deeply involved in the war, and who was involved in the IED business because they didn’t have any money.

SMITH: Is the information we are gathering from these detainees being processed into finished intelligence, not only in terms of regional intel, but in terms of connecting the dots to other things for broader strategic intelligence?

SEN. GRAHAM: Not that we can talk about. Not that can be published.

SMITH: Yes, but are we building strategic intelligence from some of this information?

SEN. GRAHAM: Let’s just say you are dead on, and this has the potential for strategic intelligence. Guantanamo Bay, for instance, has just been a treasure trove for strategic intelligence.

SMITH: So an increasing number of detainees are coming forward with information: But why now?

SEN. GRAHAM: Because we’ve separated the hardcore from the people on the margins. The latter no longer feel intimidated by the hardcore. More importantly, we’ve got the new counterinsurgency program in place.

SMITH: Explain that.

SEN. GRAHAM: We put the detainee in school, teach them to read and write, then bring in moderate clerics who will actually sit down with the detainees and go over the Koran with them: Reading passages that the insurgents use on the streets. The clerics will say, “Here’s what they [the terrorists] say it says. Here’s what it actually says. Read it for yourself.”

We’ve also created a vocational program. We’ve established brick factories at the internment facilities, so that they can learn to make bricks, develop a skill.

SMITH: So we are educating and teaching job skills to the reconcilable.

SEN. GRAHAM: Yes, so they won’t have to go back to the fight for economic reasons. Now, we don’t know what percentage of the detainees are reconcilable. But it’s probably going to be 35 to 40 percent.

SMITH: What is the guarantor program?

SEN. GRAHAM: Alright, I’ve said that Gen. Petraeus is Pres. Bush’s U.S. Grant. But I think Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone [deputy commanding general, Multi-National Force–Iraq for Detainee Operations] may be our Lawrence of Arabia. His guarantor program is evidence to me that we are finally getting it: We’re finally understanding Iraq. His program is forward-leaning. He sees the prison system as an extension of the war: Basically taking counterinsurgency into jails. And with this many people in prison, it’s important we do that.

The way it works is when someone is ready to be released, say back to Anbar — that’s where most of these guys come from — the local sheik, a family member or both signs for and vouches for that person. A lot of these guys are going back to Anbar to help us fight al Qaeda. The local sheiks, now working with us, know the really bad guys from the ones they can control. So they have to sign a pledge to be a ‘guarantor’ for the person’s behavior. And if the person returns to crime or insurgent activity, the guarantor can be held responsible.

Vice President Tariq al Hashimi issued a press statement on this just a few days ago.

In the Arab or Iraqi world, when you sign your name for somebody, that means something. There may be a lot of lying going in any culture. But signing your name in the Arab world is a very big deal.

SMITH: I find that interesting, because I’ve witnessed firsthand Iraqi policemen blatantly lying to U.S. forces. I haven’t seen it so much within the Iraqi army. But I have seen it within the police.

SEN. GRAHAM: When they sign something, it’s totally different. If you have a conversation with them, you take it for what it’s worth. But they are very serious about signing their name.

We’ve taken a problem, and we’ve been clever about turning the problem into a potential offensive weapon. As Gen. Stone says, ‘The ones we can turn around, with job skills, with education, who understand the Koran: They will be missiles returning to the provinces they came from. They’ll be the extremists’ worst nightmare.’

We also needed a robust rule of law program to hold Iraq together, protecting judges and their families from the insurgents. Now, under Gen. Petraeus, we have that.

Of all the institutions in Iraq, the judiciary is — in my opinion — the most advanced and has become the least sectarian.

SMITH: Yet perhaps the least talked about?

SEN. GRAHAM: It should have been a benchmark. I could kick myself for not making it that: Because had it been a benchmark, we’d have had a truly great story to tell.

SMITH: Can we win in Iraq?

SEN. GRAHAM: Yes, but we have to stand with the judiciary, and we have to fight the guys who are firing the rockets and blowing up the cars. That’s our only choice, and we have to be patient. It’s hard to go from a dictatorship to a democracy. There are still some sectarian problems within the judiciary: primarily within the Ministry of the Interior, the police. But we’re hoping that the stronger the judiciary gets, the quicker we’ll have reconciliation, because at the end of the day, the glue of any democracy is the rule of law.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. Smith is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. He blogs at The Tank.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...

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