The horrific civil war in Syria and the ongoing battle with ISIS has captivated the American public. Just as soon as it seemed that terrorist menace al-Qaeda was on the run and withering, ISIS reared its ugly head and began committing the horrible atrocities and wanton destruction that have been covered in painstaking detail by the media. However, as the U.S. intensifies its battle with ISIS, new questions are being asked about how committed our forces are to its destruction.
Recently, the Pentagon made an announcement that barring extenuating circumstances, all ISIS prisoners captured in the course of battle will only be held by American forces for a maximum of 30 days.
After this period, they will be turned over to the Iraqi government, which will, in theory, continue to hold them captive for long-term sentences. However, based on weak Iraqi adherence to honest jail keeping in the not-so-distant past, what assurance does the U.S. have that this will actually happen?
One only has to go back to the horrors of Abu Ghraib to remember that until recently, so distrustful was the U.S. of Iraq’s commitment to adequate sentencing and holding prisoners that it insisted on running Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons itself.
Only this way could it be assured that the country’s former enemies wouldn’t return to the battlefield weeks or months after they were captured. Now, it looks as if we may start looking back wistfully on those times as “the honest war,” compared to what’s being fought now.
The military has a convenient excuse for handing over prisoners — namely, that it lacks the funds and facilities to hold the numbers of prisoners it’s been capturing.
But it’s hard to believe the problem is funding since the Pentagon has allocated a budget of roughly $7.5 billion dollars to fighting ISIS in 2017 alone. In fact, that number is just for operations; it doesn’t account for money we’ve spent on foreign aid, training or military bases in that region in the process of trying to accomplish our goals there.
As with Iraq and Afghanistan, when the final sums are tallied, the total expenditure is likely to be an order of magnitude higher than these published figures (whether it will ultimately be in the trillions is anyone’s guess).
When one looks at the hard numbers of enemy soldiers, the CIA has given an estimate of just 30,000 infantry personnel for ISIS (mostly drawn from foreign countries by Western-style glossy propaganda). Other organizations have said the real quantity is closer to just 20,000 fighters.
This means the U.S. is spending between $250,000 and $375,000 dollars for each ISIS soldier it kills or captures. Presumably, this money has been spent before they’re captured, and not much is left over to build holding facilities (which would likely be in Iraq — although a question one might ask is what happened to the previous facilities that existed during the Iraq War?).
A pragmatist might say that it’s too bad we couldn’t just give this money to the ISIS soldiers to lay down their arms and go retire ($375,000 each buys a lot of real estate in Syria). Of course, the counter-argument to that is that it would set a bad precedent for other terrorists around the world.
But with such low numbers of the enemy, another theory starts to emerge — that there just aren’t that many people to jail; in fact, someone playing devils’ advocate might even say that if we jailed them all, there would be no one left to fight.
Nonetheless, let’s assume for now that this group of terrorists that numbers roughly one quarter the population of Albany, New York occupies a significant area of land between Iraq, Syria and Turkey (and have been freshly spotted in Libya and other places).
Presuming that this small group truly threatens the world at large, there’s a strong argument to be made to keep the prison complex at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba open, rather than shuttering it as President Barack Obama has pledged to do. In fact, with the large budget that’s been allocated to fighting ISIS, it should be feasible to not just keep the Guantanamo prison open, but to expand and fortify it for long-term use. There should be no apologies on the part of the military for not being able to hold these people.
While the Pentagon is making excuses for why it doesn’t want to keep ISIS prisoners long-term, it does say it has faith in the Iraqi government to detain them. This is not borne out by history. During the Iraq War, it’s estimated that thousands of prisoners escaped, were released for lack of evidence of militant activity or alternatively, died while being held in custody.
A short while ago, U.S. military spokesman Steve Warren was quoted as saying, “If some [ISIS detainees] escape, then we’ll just go catch them again or kill ’em” — not exactly the most promising-sounding method to deal with one’s enemy.
In fact, Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of California, a former Marine, expressed his concern to Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently that by not sending captured combatants to Guantanamo, there was a risk they may return to the battlefield.
In light of the Pentagon’s announced policy, a group of 15 U.S. senators, including Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, introduced a resolution on March 10 that would consider members of ISIS the equivalent of terrorists captured in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Stating that it should be a military goal to transfer these soldiers to Guantanamo as the U.S. previously did with Taliban fighters captured in Afghanistan. Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, a cosponsor of the resolution, is hopeful that it will pave the way towards just that action.
Many of the resolution’s supporting senators are opposed to Obama’s plans to move numerous existing Guantanamo detainees to U.S. prisons, stating that they’re too dangerous for existing prison populations and that their presence would increase the risk of terrorism at the facilities where they’re being held. Other Guantanamo prisoners are scheduled to be transferred to their home countries despite the fact that a number of previously transferred detainees have gone on to rejoin al-Qaeda in recent years.
“Jihadists who seek to kill Americans should not be brought to American soil. The security of our people, not political expediency, should guide decisions regarding prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Ensuring that our national security interests are being protected is only prudent, and Congress should step up and exercise its constitutional authority and detain ISIS fighters at Guantanamo Bay,” said Senator Ted Cruz in a statement.
While current law does not allow the military to transfer Guantanamo detainees to U.S. soil, Obama has not ruled out signing an executive order to enable this. Not only does the President seek to close Guantanamo, he has already succeeded in closing a detention center near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, the largest U.S. military post in the country.
While these facilities are being closed, the U.S. is at the same time engaged in increasing special forces operations in places like Iraq and Syria, which can result in the capture of many enemy combatants.
It would appear that these policies are at odds with one another, and questions are being raised about the effectiveness and commitment of our presence in the region. Before we continue to throw money into fighting ISIS, it should be asked: what will it take to eliminate this enemy once and for all?