LAST month, I visited one of the largest Islamic schools in the Middle East.
It's run by the US military - for detainees in Iraq.
The suspected insurgents also participate in discussion programs about Islam - and are being trained to be carpenters, farmers and artists. It's all part of the US military's radically new approach to detention in Iraq - an integral part of its counterinsurgency effort.
For the past nine months, Task Force 134 (9,000 personnel from all the uniformed services) has been experimenting with such unconventional initiatives at two large "camps" that hold 23,245 suspected insurgents. The officer in charge is Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, USMC, who oversees civilian detention in Iraq.
The goal is not only to speed up the identification and release of those falsely accused of "jihadi" activity, but also to deradicalize and rehabilitate other detainees. Judging by the early results, the new approach seems to be working - at least for the vast majority. A relatively small hard core probably can't be safely released anytime soon, but US officers say that the overwhelming majority, probably more than two-thirds, will likely be freed by year's end.
Of the 8,000 detainees released since last September, only 21 have been recaptured as a result of suspected insurgent activity - a rate officers say is unprecedented. "It means that only 0.2 percent of those detained have returned to the fight," Stone told me. "At no time in the history of collected data in Iraq do we have anything remotely like this."
In my five days with the task force, I wasn't permitted to talk privately with detainees. But I visited both Camp Cropper (near Baghdad) and Camp Bucca (outside Basra). I also sat in on classes - and watched three-member military panels question detainees and review their records to decide their fates. I also interviewed more than a dozen US soldiers and Iraqi teachers, social workers and clerics working in the program.
Ahmed, a 30-year-old Sunni, talked with me as he was being released. He told me he'd never been physically abused or mistreated during his 11 months there - and had learned how to read, write, do carpentry and play chess. "Because I had never played chess before, I had to cheat to win," he joked. "None of this would have happened in an Iraqi jail."
The military tries to involve detainees' families in their rehabilitation via frequent visits, letters and cell-phone contact. At Camp Bucca - the largest detention facility in Iraq, with 20,000 of the 23,000-plus detainees - more than 1,200 family members visit interned relatives each week. At Camp Cropper, some 100 families visit each day.
The training/education effort is the reverse not only of Abu Ghraib, but of the military's former "feeding and warehousing system" - which wound up breeding an insurgency in America's own internment facilities, officers told me.
The programs also tell us much about the causes of Islamic extremism and how best to defeat such impulses. The task force's data show that 81 percent of the suspected insurgents are Iraqi males and Sunni. (Only 14 women are being detained, plus 575 juveniles, whose average age is 15.) The 240 non-Iraqi fighters hail from 21 countries. Most detainees are ages 18 to 29.
And most are motivated mainly by money, or lack of it. Some 78 percent said they'd participated in attacks against Coalition forces to feed their families, and 79 percent have children. Only one in three said that they had a strong religious belief. Some 64 percent are illiterate.
A major tipping point, say officers, was when detainees began volunteering for the classes being offered. Although al Qaeda detainees and the Takfiris (another group of religious extremists) pressured fellow Iraqis against joining in, more than 3,000 detainees have done so.
"After Iraqis here learn how to read and write, they can read the Koran themselves for the first time," says Sheik Ali, a Sunni who counsels detainees. (Like most Iraqis working in the program, he declined to give his surname; he must live in a US-guarded compound to avoid reprisals.) "I've seen detainees break down and cry when they realize that the conduct they thought was sanctioned by God is actually a sin."
The program's not cheap. The task force will spend about $1 billion this year, including new-facility construction. But a continued insurgency would be even more costly - in American and Iraqi lives.
And it has its critics. Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist, former CIA case officer and expert in Islamic radicalization, sees promise - but says that it's too early to call the program a success. He also fears that many detainees deemed to be de-radicalized, and then released to the still-unstable outside environment, may eventually revert to their former militancy and violent habits.
Human Rights Watch complains that it (along with a UN monitor) hasn't been allowed to interview detainees privately to ensure that they're not being mistreated or abused. But the US military argues that in time of war, only the Red Cross is entitled to make such unescorted visits - and has routinely done so.
Officers insist that a UN resolution authorizes them to detain anyone who endangers Coalition forces, and that those detained aren't traditional POWs. But the US military's program applies Geneva Conventions standards to those it now holds.
Indeed, the Geneva rules are posted in many locations at both camps, along with the task force's unofficial motto for how it wants all detainees to be treated - with "respect."
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/05022008/postopinion/opedcolumnists/what_i_learned_at_anti_jihad_u_109130.htm