Opinion

What happens after Guantánamo?

President Obama must ensure that US detention is a tactical necessity, not a strategic liability.

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When it comes to Guantánamo, President Obama is still stuck. It’s clear the detention facility won’t close any time soon. That leaves many people, in and out of the administration, in the United States and overseas, wondering: What’s next for Guantánamo?

But that’s the wrong question. Debates about Guantánamo continue to entertain with political drama and storylines like those in “24,” but they typically ignore larger problems surrounding long-term detention that have confounded the US and international community for years. As a result, the American public has yet to face the toughest question of all: What happens after Guantánamo?

This has little to do with the detention facility itself or whether the 192 detainees remaining there are held in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, or in a prison in Thomson, Illinois. Rather, it’s about how the US approaches long-term detention – for the subset of nearly 50 detainees considered too dangerous to release even if not prosecuted and for transnational terrorists captured in the future. While counterterrorism experts stress that detention is a critical tool in the war against Al Qaeda, it represents a strategic vulnerability for the US. Terrorists can – and probably will – use US detention operations as a recruiting tool no matter how or where they’re carried out. Moving forward, the key will be to minimize this effect to the greatest extent possible.

The next chapter in US detention efforts must begin with President Obama further shifting the tone of the detainee debate, particularly for those most affected by US detention efforts – Muslim communities overseas whose sons and brothers are detained at Guantánamo and who are the primary targets of Al Qaeda recruiters.

This requires Washington adjust the lens through which it views long-term detention. The United States has committed to holding detainees until their release isn’t a serious risk, either because Al Qaeda has been defeated or because the detainees themselves are no longer a threat. The strategic focus has therefore emphasized combating Al Qaeda or changing the security environment overseas. In fact, Obama’s Detainee Task Force determined that approximately 30 Yemenis could eventually be released if Yemen was more stable.

But another way to approach the problem is to work with the detainees themselves and increase efforts to rehabilitate those in custody – a process that has multiple benefits beyond the most obvious fact that, if a detainee is no longer a threat, he can be released sooner.

Rehabilitation programs are not a silver bullet and won’t affect hardcore ideologues. However, they can help reform a subset of detainees in custody – those whom the US may let go at some point, even if Al Qaeda remains a concern. This approach was deemed effective in Iraq, where rehabilitation efforts reduced the rate at which released detainees returned to dangerous activity.

Such programs are also a critical part of efforts to counter radicalization that can occur in prison, answering those who say Guantánamo has made its detainees more committed to terrorist activity. Perhaps most important, efforts to rehabilitate detainees – particularly those that include a detainee’s family in the process – help recast US detention in a new light, especially in the Muslim world where rehabilitation efforts are widely supported. 

Along these lines, rehabilitation has become an integral part of recent US detention efforts in Afghanistan, where winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan populace extends to detainees and their families. Though similar programs in other countries, including Saudi Arabia, have had mixed results, detainee rehabilitation nonetheless remains an important element of broader counter-radicalization efforts. It plays a critical part in preventing the radicalization of vulnerable groups that represent Al Qaeda’s primary recruiting pool, and should be a publicly discussed component of all future US detention strategies. 

Thus far, the administration has stressed the desire to repatriate detainees whenever possible and prosecute the rest. While this was the right place to start, the US must also refine efforts to explain its detention strategies to the Muslim world. This will require careful, nuanced diplomacy, one of Obama’s strengths. 

Changing the tenor of debate also requires increased transparency about those in US custody. After eight years, it’s still unclear who, exactly, is left at Guantánamo. US officials should declassify more information to explain who these individuals are and why they pose such a serious threat to the American public and wider international community, including those still clamoring for their release. This approach will be critical for future detention efforts, too.

As we’ve seen over the past year, presentation is everything – at home and overseas, with our allies and with our enemies. This is particularly true with long-term detention, which the US has struggled to explain for years. Obama recognized this when he made closing Guantánamo a priority his first day in office. Focusing on detainee rehabilitation and transparency will allow Washington to address future US detention efforts in a way that helps ensure this tactical necessity doesn’t become a strategic liability.

Marisa L. Porges is an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She previously served in the Defense Department’s Office of Detainee Affairs, where she coordinated detainee repatriation efforts.

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