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The Laptop Is Mightier Than the Sword

Published: June 15, 2007


WHILE waiting to see if the Iraq surge strategy pays off, President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have shown Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the door and brought in Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute as the new White House “war czar.” Well, they can shift senior leadership all they want, but unless they give our troops patrolling the streets the tools they need, our leaders are going to see this strategy fizzle.

Part of the problem was that when the military surge was announced, it became commonplace for officials to assert that political compromise, not military force, would determine the outcome of the war. This vacuous idea would startle George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, to mention only a few unlikely bedfellows who forged success during an insurgency.

Buying time with American lives is not a military mission. No platoon commander tells his soldiers to go out and tread water so the politicians can talk. The goal of American soldiers is to identify and kill or capture the Shiite death squads and Sunni insurgents.

What is keeping them from doing so? The war in Iraq would be over in a week if the insurgents wore uniforms. Instead, they hide in plain sight, and Iraqi and American soldiers have no means of checking the true identity and history of anyone they stop.

This is inexcusable. In Vietnam, the mobility of the Vietcong guerrilla forces was eventually crippled by a laborious hamlet-level census completed by hand in 1968. Biometric tracking and databases have since made extraordinary advances, yet our vaunted technical experts have failed at this elementary task in Iraq.

Any time a car is stopped in the United States, the police run an immediate check. The New York Police Department tracks criminal trends by neighborhood and block in a real time database called Compstat. The Chicago police have handheld devices that send fingerprints over the airwaves and get a response in minutes. So do our border police. But in Iraq, for four years our units have been forced to concoct their own identification databases using laptops, spreadsheets and poster boards. At any one time, the military is conducting dozens of separate census operations. Houses are labeled by one unit and relabeled by the next.

Meanwhile, it is common for an Iraqi civilian to carry two or three IDs with different names. The result: Last year 400,000 coalition and Iraqi troops made fewer than 40,000 arrests; in contrast, 22,000 New York City patrolmen made more than 500,000 spot checks and 313,000 arrests.

One of us (Owen) experienced this confusion firsthand. With his unit struggling to keep track of the insurgents in their area, it found a nonprofit company called Spirit of America that designed and sent over a handheld device, built from scratch in 30 days, to take fingerprints and photographs.

Secretary Gates and General Lute should sever the bureaucratic chains that have crippled the military biometrics effort by calling on private companies to compete on designing handheld devices to be carried by troops, with results demanded within six weeks. The arrival of the equipment must be followed immediately by a biometric census — in which every house would be labeled, every occupant identified and most transients listed in a real-time database.

The other major defect we’ve seen in our military strategy is the consistent release of captured insurgents. Imprisonment is the dominant military weapon for quelling this insurgency. Vietnam was a shooting war; Iraq is a police arrest war. The insurgents learned years ago not to engage in firefights with American troops. American troops in Vietnam in 1968, for example, found that they killed 13 enemies for every one captured; in Iraq, one enemy is killed for every 10 captured.

Yet, according to Pentagon records, more than 85 percent of the suspected Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen detained are soon set free. The troops call it “catch and release.” The American and Iraqi jails now hold about 40,000 prisoners — by some estimates just half the number Saddam Hussein released from prison in the mass exodus of 2002. Texas, with a smaller population, has more than 170,000 in jail.

Part of the problem is that, in response to the shameful abuses at Abu Ghraib, the American military instituted vastly excessive civil rights protections for detainees. In our experience, it has worked this way: After an arrest, two soldiers must file affidavits, together with physical evidence and digital pictures, and then an American lawyer decides if the package is strong enough to withstand further review. About half of all detainees are released within 18 hours; the others are sent from battalion level to brigade level, where the evidence is re-examined, resulting in more releases.

Those detainees remaining are sent to a detention center where a combined board reviews the evidence again, and releases still more. After that, every six months a United States board must re-review the evidence in each case. Lastly, the detainee appears before an Iraqi judge, who in turn dismisses about half of the cases.

As for follow-up, before a detainee walks free, the American command sends notification to the battalion in the area where he was apprehended. But because many of the battalions have rotated back to the United States by this time, a new unit has to deal with the detainee.

Worse, there remains steady clamoring from both high-level Iraqi and American officials for yet another mass release (there have been several since 2003). To his credit, General David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, has resisted, and the result is prison overcrowding since the surge began. Yet neither the American government, mindful of the criticism of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, nor the Iraqi government wants to take the political heat of building more prisons.

Sorry, but we can’t let old mistakes be the cause of new ones. The scale of imprisonment must be doubled or tripled if we are serious about prevailing. There is no deterrence in Iraq today because most captured insurgents are released. We will never defeat an insurgency we allow to regenerate.

Secretary Gates and General Lute are beset by competing demands. Nonetheless, creating an identification system for our troops and hammering out an imprisonment policy proportionate to the scale of the war should be at the top of their agenda.