January 13, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Prisoner’s Dilemma: Afghanistan’s Difficult Choices

• Afghanistan faces a true Prisoner’s Dilemma: release 72 hard core detainees as a show of sovereignty or hold over alleged dangerous terrorists and criminals for trial to prevent a sudden influx of violence

• Tensions between the Karzai government and the international coalition are secondary to the goal of a just and lasting peace, through reconciling war-time justice with peace-maintaining stability

• The release of dangerous criminals into a society vulnerable to their negative influences can have significant near to medium-term repercussions, as seen now in Iraq

• Whatever decisions President Karzai makes regarding detainees will need to be seen as legitimate, to have any hope of helping Afghanistan move ahead by leaving war behind.

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As of mid-January 2014, Afghanistan faces one of the most insidious yet consistently overlooked aspects of its long-term armed conflict: that war makes blood enemies of justice and stability, the two concepts that most need to work together for peace.

The Karzai government announced its intention to release 72 detainees, the majority of whom are accused of targeting or killing Afghan civilians and security forces as well as international troops. This development is noteworthy, but not only because it adds pressure to the already tense environment between President Karzai and the international coalition waiting on a bilateral agreement to be signed before committing to troops/advisor levels post-2014. Tensions and political maneuverings among the parties are nothing new, even if the time line is more compressed than normal.

Rather, the unfolding detainee dilemma is about what it takes to make peace and what it takes to sustain it. Present in Afghanistan are profound challenges related to varying perceptions of justice, stability, sovereignty, and the rule of law. Unfortunately, these types of discussion all too often veer into platitudes that ignore the long-reverberating echoes of war that people in Afghanistan—and Iraq—will deal with for generations. In fact, how Iraq handled some detainee issues may portend unsettling hints of what is conceivable in Afghanistan.

Much of the decision dilemma boils down to sometimes paradoxical choices:

• Is it possible to maintain a just and lasting peace gained partly through war-time detentions conducted by joint, coalition, or foreign raids that a significant percentage of the population view as intrusive or unjust?

• But, is it possible to maintain a just and lasting peace by releasing a significant number of dangerous criminals solely because they were detained by joint, coalition, or foreign troops?

• There are many people (the majority of the population) with whom stability and peace must be built, but these people can’t see progress as stemming from unjust detentions and arrests.

• There is a dangerous minority (terrorists and criminals) with whom stability or peace simply can’t be built, no matter the concessions or negotiations. In this equation, Iraq serves an example and leaves little doubt.

• For those remaining detained for reasons not apparent or believed by the population at large, they, their families and neighbors will not support the government that kept them in prison. Again, look at Iraq, in which the sectarian divide is greatly exacerbated by the perception of the central government’s capricious and vindictive detentions.

• But for serious terrorists and criminals let loose in an environment with a barely functioning law enforcement, the record is not good. Iraq is experiencing persistent and increasing violence, in part conducted by dangerous criminals whom the Iraqi government released (or “escaped”) as a symbol of new sovereignty.

• In Afghanistan presently, most detainees captured in raids or missions during the height of military operations have been released. However, those still in detention at this late stage are not run-of-the-mill detainees caught up in broad sweeps. They are likely the most committed terrorists and violently extreme opposition. Again, look at Iraq, in which the violence picked up after the last hard-core violent prisoners were released.

• But it is the societies least able to handle this dangerous influx—in the case of Afghanistan, over 70 detainees—struggling with insurgency, stability, and competing loyalties that most often set off a harmful sequence of events due to understandable concerns and pressures related to sovereignty and differing views on rules of evidence and trials.

• War-time detentions, however morally and legally justified by international forces who might have borne much of the burden of fighting for this peace, will be viewed skeptically at best by the local population who bear most of the burden of living with this peace.

Afghanistan faces a truly unenviable Prisoner’s Dilemma (though, not the one of game theory). Its hopes for a just and lasting peace rely in large part on the government and its people making peace with concepts of justice and stability that decades of war have made enemies. Every choice made in this issue will somehow be both wrong and right. But eventually the choices of the Afghan government have to be seen as legitimate for peace to follow war.


  • The release of the 72 insurgent detainees might help President Karzai in the short term, with his end-state negotiations with the Taliban

• Based of the recent history in Iraq, though, a meaningful percentage of those 72 released detainees will likely reengage in violent opposition activities and prove to be force multipliers of the worst kind

• The long-honored tradition of villages vouching for wayward sons will prove insufficient to handle the influx of seriously dangerous terrorists.


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