Why not just let them go?
The fear that detainees at Guantánamo or Afghanistan might "return to the battlefield" if released remains an ongoing feature of debates about U.S. detention policy. The concern isn't entirely frivolous: Some former detainees have taken up arms against the United States after gaining their freedom. But here's my heretical thought of the week: So what? Or, more precisely: Isn't it time to recognize that the dangers associated with releasing detainees might be outweighed by the dangers associated with continuing to hold them?
Under the law of war, states can detain enemy combatants as prisoners of war for the duration of the conflict, in order to keep them off the battlefield. But historically, many states -- including the United States -- have engaged in routine prisoner exchanges during armed conflicts, freeing enemy prisoners in exchange for the return of our own prisoners. (During World War II, we even exchanged some POWs with the Nazis). The long-standing practice of prisoner exchanges implies something we often seem to forget these days: Sometimes, letting bad guys go is much more useful than hanging on to them.
We're reaching that point in the Afghanistan conflict. On Monday, U.S. military authorities formally transferred control of Afghanistan's Parwan detention facility to the government of Afghanistan. The transfer of the facility, which holds some 4,000 people detained by coalition forces during a decade of war, had been delayed and delayed again due to U.S. fears that Afghan authorities would simply release many of the detainees -- who would end up "returning to the battlefield." But as an unnamed U.S. official told the New York Times, there's "a shift that's going on in how the U.S. is looking at what's important.... We have to look at the larger picture: What's the U.S. strategic interest here?"
Right. What's better for the United States after a dozen years of war, and with plans for a large-scale troop withdrawal in 2014: holding on to every last Taliban detainee "just in case," or letting the Afghans figure out what to do with the detainees -- even if it means that some are released and rejoin the Taliban?
Whether the U.S. effort in Afghanistan succeeds or fails surely does not depend on whether a few thousand Taliban detainees return to being Taliban fighters. No one knows for sure how many fighters the Taliban has in the first place, but estimates range from 25,000 to 40,000. Arrayed against roughly 350,000 members of the Afghan National Security Forces (not to mention the remaining U.S. troops), it's hard to imagine that tossing a few thousand Taliban fighters back into the mix will be a decisive factor, even in the unlikely event that Afghan authorities engage in a wholesale prisoner release.
In part, this is because Taliban fighters appear to be a renewable resource: With or without detainees released from Parwan or other facilities, the Taliban seem quite effective in recruiting new young men to serve as cannon fodder. (Most will occupy only low-level roles, and most will not live long.) And the continued detention of thousands of Afghans by the United States plays a role in ensuring a steady stream of Taliban recruits.
That role is impossible to quantify, but difficult to doubt: Afghan President Hamid Karzai has frequently made clear how bitterly his government -- our putative partner against the Taliban -- resented U.S. control over Parwan. Perhaps more tellingly, ordinary Afghans express striking ambivalence about the presence of international forces: Two years running, for instance, three-quarters of Afghans surveyed by the Asia Foundation say they have "some" or "a lot" of fear about encountering international forces.