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Albuquerque Journal


Iraqi Militants Becoming Citizens

July 15, 2008

By Judith Miller

Major General Doug Stone is trying to turn jailed Iraqi militants into citizens. Call him a do-gooder, but guess what? It's working.

Turning Shame Into Pride

After Major General Douglas Michael Stone arrived in Baghdad in April 2007 to take command of security prisoners in Iraq, he promptly assembled his officers for some blunt talk. The abuses of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib were a "moral failure" that had shamed a nation long admired for respecting international law and human rights, he told them. They were also a betrayal of the U.S. military's and America's "core values."

"Abu Ghraib was a leadership failure that telegraphed to 1.3 billion Muslims that we had no respect for them," Stone told me as we flew in an H-60 Black Hawk helicopter to Camp Bucca, the sprawling civilian detention facility in the flat desert of southern Iraq. "Abu Ghraib will not be forgotten. But it is being replaced."

Unvarnished assessments and cool determination are Stone hallmarks, say his friends and colleagues. So, apparently, is unorthodox thinking. Gen. David Petraeus, who commands the multinational forces in Iraq, says it was Stone's ability to "think outside the box," and his flair for encouraging creativity in subordinates, that prompted him to recruit Stone for the vexing, politically charged detention mission. Although the two men had never before "soldiered together," Petraeus says, "we needed that kind of thinker and leader to take the detainee effort to the next level."

A little over a year after Stone's arrival, America's civilian detention program in Iraq has indeed been transformed. Cement walls and concertina wire still surround the two vast camps where nearly 23,000 people suspected of aiding the Iraqi insurgency are being held. But the men, women, and teenagers "inside the wire" no longer languish without hope, not knowing why they have been detained or what they need to do to be released -- and they're no longer subjected to horrific and occasionally criminal abuses. Nor are they burning down their tents or hurling "chai rocks" made of dried tea and sand at the soldiers who guard them, as they did before Stone arrived.

Rather, thousands of once illiterate detainees have learned how to read and write. Hundreds more are now studying math, science, geography, civics, Arabic, and English and learning carpentry, bricklaying, and other skills that may enable them to feed their families after their release. They play soccer and Ping-Pong, visit their families, pray, and debate how to accurately interpret the Koran they can now read for themselves.

And detainees appear in person every six months before a military review board that determines whether they can be released. While more than 8,000 have been released since last September, only 21 have been recaptured for suspected insurgent activity, a recidivism rate that Stone calls unprecedented.

Peaceful Citizens of a New Iraq?

Stone, a two-star Marine general in the reserves (rumor has it that he'll soon be awarded a third star), is the driving force behind these initiatives. A mechanical engineer by training and a rancher of Navajo and German descent who was raised partly on an Indian reservation in Arizona, he gives new meaning to the cliché self-made.

In the mid-1980s and '90s-between deployments on active duty in such garden spots as Okinawa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Iraq -- he helped found or turn around three Silicon Valley high-tech companies, all of which were sold for a healthy profit. When he is not deployed, he lives with his wife of 36 years, Kathy, on their working ranch of several hundred acres near Sacramento.

In other words, Stone doesn't need this job -- or the four master's degrees and the doctorate he picked up along the way from Stanford, Pepperdine, the U.S. Naval War College, and the University of Southern California.

Compulsively curious, he speaks three foreign languages fluently: German, Spanish, and Urdu. He mastered some Navajo as a child and, on various deployments, acquired some Farsi, French, Italian, and now Arabic. He reads the Koran every morning to help him understand Iraqi culture and how best to turn insurgents and other enemies into peaceful citizens of a new Iraq, if not into genuine American friends.

Stone, who recently turned 58, is in perpetual motion. When he is not hopping on a C-130 or a chopper to visit Camp Bucca, he is meeting with General Petraeus, his boss, or with Iraqi officials to press for greater support for his detainee programs; defusing a "situation" at the Camp Cropper detention facility near Baghdad; or helping resolve a personal crisis involving a soldier.

His day begins at 5:45 with personal training -- usually a half-hour run at the gym -- and ends on his computer well after midnight at his villa adjacent to a lake near the Baghdad airport with a flurry of e-mails to fellow officers, soldiers, reporters, friends, and family. If he's lucky, there's a ten-minute catnap during the day, usually sitting up, in a chair or a chopper, between meetings.

What did Stone know about running a detention program before he was given this mission? "Absolutely nothing," he says, barely suppressing a mischievous grin. "You are totally screwed, sir," Col. Anthony Lieto remembers telling his onetime boss and longtime friend when he learned that General Petraeus had chosen Stone to command Task Force 134. This special group, composed of some 9,000 military personnel pulled from all the uniformed services and the reserves, runs the detention system.

But Stone immediately started studying the detention program that Gen. George W. Casey had begun overhauling after the eruption of the Abu Ghraib scandal. He also examined programs run by Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and other states that have been battling militant Islamism. Finally he asked Colonel Lieto, with whom he'd worked closely in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to postpone his retirement and become his deputy. "Had it been anyone else but Doug Stone, I might have said no," Lieto told me.

Both men initially wondered if they had made a mistake when they arrived in Iraq a year ago last spring. Rioting among the 20,000 detainees at Camp Bucca had almost pushed the soldiers into using deadly force to reassert control. Detainees were being warehoused. And their release resulted in more deaths or injuries of American soldiers. The detention facilities themselves had become breeding grounds for militants, turning humiliated detainees into hard-core insurgents. Stone and Lieto quickly concluded that drastic changes were necessary.

Stone says his background in business helped him tackle the challenge. "It was not unlike a turnaround of a nonperforming company," he told me. "I love problem solving and feel comfortable changing the organizations around me."

In Iraq, that meant finding a way to empower politically moderate detainees, who Stone says were the vast majority of those in custody. So after monitoring and assessing the detainees, his team began separating the hard-core Al Qaeda and other militants from the 80 percent or more who had joined the insurgency simply to feed their families or because they had been threatened into cooperating.

They also devised a system of incentives to reward detainees for "productive" behavior and instituted a pledge for detainees just before their release that they would live peacefully and respect the laws of the government of Iraq. They began paying those who volunteered to learn a skill and participate in the camp work programs the equivalent of $1.10 an hour -- a considerable sum in post-Saddam Iraq. The money is kept for the detainees in bank accounts or given to their families during visits.

"This is an Arab culture," says Stone. "It's all about business."

It's also about respect. Once the detainees trusted their American and Iraqi guards to be decent and fair, they rejected the pressure by militants to shun educational programs offered by the United States.

"Only a year ago, the TIFs [Theater Internment Facilities] were violent places that were often run by the most militant of the detainees," says Brig. Gen. Michael Nevin, who oversees them. "Now they are both predictable and peaceful. We've seen an enormous drop in violence." Many months have passed without a major incident.

Quality of Detention Life

Stone generates a new idea a minute -- not all of them successful. There was, for example, his flirtation with giving juvenile detainees tie-dyed uniforms, an initiative that quickly died. (Camp stewards eventually settled on deep-purple uniforms for juveniles and yellow for adults.) But other seemingly eccentric Stone proposals have improved the quality of detention life.

Consider the bread factory. Annoyed by the cost and logistic difficulty of trucking pita bread, a staple of the Iraqi diet, across the desert from Kuwait to Camp Bucca, Stone built a bakery there last year. Under an Indian company's management, it churns out 150,000 pitas a day at just 13 cents apiece.

The emphasis on respect and incentives has led some officers to joke about Stone's detention philosophy. "We used to call this a grab, hold, and release program," says Lt. Comdr. Kenneth C. Marshall, in Task Force 134's public affairs office. "Now it's the grab, hold, hug, and release program. But since this is a war zone, it's a firm hug."

Another of Stone's apparent gifts is getting his innovations funded, or most of them. Col. James Brown, now a branch chief at NorthCom in Colorado Springs, Colorado, credits Stone with having found money to more than double his vocational education classes at Camp Bucca. "His vision and ability to resource it made a huge difference," Brown asserts.

When Brown wanted to start a work program for artists, several officers were skeptical. But Stone supported him. "The program is now a huge success," says Brown. One formerly militant detainee who was recently released -- a man nicknamed Picasso for his bold, original designs -- has agreed to return to the program as a counselor and teacher.

Detention, of course, must not be confused with missionary work. Stone is well aware that Amnesty International and other human rights groups have criticized his program for refusing to permit them to interview detainees privately (which he says only the Red Cross is authorized to do). But Stone says he never loses sight of his real mission: to save American lives by keeping hard-core militants from killing U.S. troops. "I'm not a do-gooder. That's not why I'm here," he told a group of military bloggers last fall. Detention, he says, should be seen as an integral part of the military's counterinsurgency efforts, a vital component of what Stone calls "the battlefield of the mind."

Stone and many of his fellow officers think the Iraqi government has not done enough for its people to win their hearts and minds. Under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, unemployment remains high and few services are offered. Money vanishes. Stone is also frustrated that neither the United States nor the Iraqi government has been willing to finance one of his key initiatives, a post-release program that would provide former detainees with a monthly stipend of between $175 and $200 for six months in exchange for return visits to the detention centers to ensure they are still studying or working and staying out of trouble.

"He often lacks patience," says Colonel Lieto of his friend. "In Iraq, everything takes one-third more time and money than you think it should. Major General Stone finds that frustrating."

Even an infinitely patient man, however, may be unable to erase the memory of Abu Ghraib. While Stone wages his battle for the hearts and minds of the detainees, photos on the Internet, militant Islamic recruiting posters, and a controversial documentary by Errol Morris keep the memory alive.

But none of this is likely to deter Stone, who friends and colleagues say has an uncanny ability to keep his ego in check and stay the course. Conrad Prusak, who heads Ethos Consulting, a management consulting and executive search firm, recalls attending Stone's promotion ceremony at Twentynine Palms, the Marine Corps Air Ground training facility in California, shortly before Stone left for Iraq. When he got his second star, he had his first star made into mementos for his grandkids. "Even when it was supposed to be all about him, it was not all about him," Prusak says. "He doesn't draw a lot of attention to himself. He's all about the mission."

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