Past the Deadline on Guantánamo

A week after the deadline for closing the detention center, the United States is no closer to a satisfactory outcome.

The one-year deadline for closing Guantánamo came and went last week, with 196 men still detained at the U.S. facility. The interagency task force reviewing the Guantánamo detainees' files has now finished its work. Unfortunately, instead of placing the remaining detainees into only two categories -- release/transfer or try -- it has also recommended adding a third category: continued indefinite detention without charge. That doesn't make closing Guantánamo sound very likely.

The one-year deadline for closing Guantánamo came and went last week, with 196 men still detained at the U.S. facility. The interagency task force reviewing the Guantánamo detainees’ files has now finished its work. Unfortunately, instead of placing the remaining detainees into only two categories — release/transfer or try — it has also recommended adding a third category: continued indefinite detention without charge. That doesn’t make closing Guantánamo sound very likely.

By all accounts, President Obama remains strongly committed to shuttering the detention facility. He says so in virtually every major foreign-policy speech and made signing an executive order on Guantánamo one of his very first presidential acts. One year later, Obama needs different options than what the interagency task force has provided if he is to deliver on this critical campaign promise.

The Jan. 27 London ministerial meeting on Yemen is an opportunity to explore such alternatives.

No single group of detainees at Guantánamo has confounded the Obama administration more than the 91 Yemenis. Of the 196 men still detained, the interagency task force recommended that 53 not be released or prosecuted. Almost half of these men — as many as 25 — are Yemeni. (The next largest group is Afghans, and then there are small numbers of individuals from other countries.) Of the 110 that are listed for some type of release or transfer, about 60 are Yemeni. Unless conditions change on the ground in Yemen, these men are going nowhere. It is not inconceivable that, over the next year, as detainees from other countries are moved out of Guantánamo for prosecution or release, the vast majority left will be Yemenis. If Guantánamo were a recruiting tool for al Qaeda before, Guantánamo populated mainly by Yemenis will be even more problematic.

Maybe that is why in December, the Obama administration announced a plan to purchase the Thomson Correctional Center in rural Illinois. A letter from the secretaries of defense and state and other officials to the Illinois governor said the federal government planned to use Thompson for military commissions and for the detention of individuals now held at Guantánamo. In briefing reporters,  senior administration officials were at great pains to say that "no one has been put in this [indefinite detention] category yet. Don’t jump to conclusions." But the clear implication of the announcement was that the Obama administration was considering adopting the "field of dreams" scenario anticipated by some (and dreaded by other) members of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ 2007-2008 working group on Guantánamo: If you build it, they will come. In other words, give those sorting the files the option of not releasing and not prosecuting, and the interagency task force will sort detainees into that category.

Authorities on international humanitarian law vehemently disagree about whether the Obama administration has the legal authority under the laws of war to detain these people indefinitely without charge in the United States at a facility such as Thompson. Clearly some in the administration are making the argument that the president does have the authority.

But, the legal issue aside, there are serious political problems. Congress is likely to grant funds for the federal purchase of Thompson for the military commission trials and post-conviction detention. Congressional staff suggest, however, that it is extremely unlikely the administration would find 60 votes supporting the use of Thompson for indefinite detention. It strikes many as moving Guantánamo rather than closing it. Why would Congress authorize funds for that?

With Thompson looking like a poor option, what is a better alternative? The answer lies in, of all places, Yemen.

The failed Christmas Day plot involving a young, affluent Nigerian who received training in Yemen plus the amalgamation of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia with al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP) has focused international and Yemeni attention on terrorist threats. Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jan. 20 that there has been "a decisive turn by the Yemeni government" in its actions against AQAP. For the time being, the Obama administration has halted all transfers of Yemeni detainees to Yemen.

There are few nations where poverty, abuse, and poor governance mix with al Qaeda to produce such a serious threat to domestic and international stability and security. The rising prominence of AQAP coupled with the country’s ongoing civil conflict, disappearing oil reserves, shrinking water table, and demographic youth bulge present the Obama administration with a series of pressing security concerns.

The question that needs to be asked: Is there a way for the international community to help Yemen address its development and radicalization challenges and for Yemen and other countries to help create conditions on the ground so that the Obama administration can safely resume the transfer of Yemeni detainees from Guantánamo?

To puzzle through these questions, Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress and I convened a half-day meeting in Washington on Jan. 19 with about 20 top security, counterterrorism, human rights, and regional experts. Several participants were highly skeptical that anything could be done on either front. Some argued for keeping the focus only on the Yemeni detainees.

I came away convinced that an approach that only addresses the detainees without addressing development issues in Yemen is ill advised. It threatens to repeat mistakes the United States has made on numerous occasions all over the world — for example, in Afghanistan at various times in the last several decades, where locals wondered: is the United States interested in helping us or is the United States only interested in pursuing its interests? To be effective, the answer — and the reality — has to involve both. Drawing on this logic, I have three specific recommendations to be considered at the London ministerial and beyond that potentially combine U.S. and Yemeni interests.

First, the foreign ministers should use the London meeting to establish a contact group to oversee a wide variety of issues concerning Yemen. The group should be composed of senior representatives of the Yemeni government and the Obama administration, as well as European governments, the European Union, and the United Nations. Other Arab governments, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, and regional organizations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council have particularly important roles to play in such a group and should take leadership roles. This "Friends of Yemen" group would have multiple impressive diplomatic precedents and models.

The contact group should coordinate socioeconomic, environmental, health, and rule of law assistance to address the multiple development, governance, and security issues destabilizing Yemen. The group might begin its work by assessing existing public-opinion surveys and commissioning new ones in order to best identify, in a systematic way, the needs of the people. Significant assistance should then be coordinated and delivered in a time-sensitive manner. The assistance should be provided directly to the Yemeni people through local nongovernmental organizations working with the international community.

Obama administration officials recognize the need for holistic support of Yemen , but the Yemeni government might rightly be skeptical of the U.S. commitment based on its record. A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on assistance to Yemen suggests the United States only spent $2 million on development aid to Yemen between fiscal year 2001 and fiscal year 2006. When contemplating the dire socioeconomic and security situation in Yemen, consider the fact that the budgets of numerous nonprofits in Washington dwarf what the United States government was investing over the last 10 years in a place now considered a top national-security concern.

Second, the contact group should oversee the creation of a state-of-the art reintegration and risk-reduction initiative to facilitate the transfer of Yemeni detainees currently at Guantánamo. "Deradicalization programs" exist in many regions of the world. Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Indonesia, Egypt, Malaysia, and Northern Ireland have all invested in them. For months, the Obama administration negotiated with the Saudis to take the Yemeni detainees at Guantánamo into their program. There is a growing body of literature on these programs. Governments, including our own, have funded excellent studies exploring what has proven effective in moving people away from violence and from the most extreme salafi beliefs. The United States has also been in years of discussion with the Yemeni government to provide support to develop such a program. Yemeni officials have offered a specific location, but talks stalled over the U.S. providing $10 million. Other sources of funding must be found.

The London ministerial provides an opportunity to jump-start this initiative. Participants should explore creating an internationally funded but locally run initiative, with funding split between the U.S., European, Arab, and Yemeni governments. Many European officials I have met over the last year have made clear their interest in helping the Obama administration close Guantánamo, but some governments have been reluctant to receive detainees for domestic political reasons. By investing in the risk-reduction initiative, European governments could both help the Obama administration close Guantánamo and address their own security interests. Critical partners will also be Arab states that address this issue in their own countries.

The initiative should initially be designed for Guantánamo detainees and later expanded to include other individuals. It should first address reintegration, working with the approximately 60 Yemeni Guantánamo detainees that are slated for release. The individually designed programs should involve psychological counseling, medical attention, job training, religious discussion with local imams, and work with their families to bring these released detainees back into the community. Local civil society should be enlisted to help organize the support for these people who have been held for years without charge. Fundamentally, these men need sustainable jobs that allow them to marry, have families, and build a productive life in Yemen. The initiative should be designed to enable these necessary aspects of reintegration.

The issues relating to some detainees — specifically the ones the United States is considering detaining indefinitely — will prove harder to address. This smaller group, approximately 25 men currently at Guantánamo, would likely require a more intensive and undoubtedly more restrictive program but one also involving family or tribal involvement.

Let’s be candid about the choices facing the United States. The Obama administration is looking at either supporting the development of a reintegration and risk-reduction initiative for these men, as many countries have done, or institutionalizing detention without charge in the United States, as countries America castigates do. There is no such thing as 100 percent success in any risk-reduction program. No government can promise that someone who goes through it will not turn (or in some cases, return) to violence. But researchers know collectively increasingly more about what works, and these efforts are surely more effective than the alternative of institutionalizing indefinite detention in the United States, feeding yet more extreme radicalization in Yemen. America has been down that path before, and it damages the country’s democracy, its national security, and its ability to lead internationally. A risk-reduction initiative would allow the United States to move away from Guantánamo’s indefinite detention regime that, according to multiple U.S. flag officers, including Centcom commander Gen. David Petreaus, has greatly increased security risks, functioning as a recruitment tool for al Qaeda.

Some suggest that a risk-reduction initiative should be done very quietly with mainly or only Arab governments and experts. Others believe international experts on psychiatry and psychology should also be enlisted. I suspect that both tracks are necessary, but these and other issues would be worked out by the Friends of Yemen group. At a minimum, international experts should be consulted to develop an agreed-upon protocol of what constitutes success; criteria do not currently exist. Penn State’s John Horgan has done ground-breaking work on risk reduction — indeed, the term in this context, is his. He and others such as Marc Sageman have looked in depth at these issues and ought to be enlisted. So should numerous experts working in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt.

Third, in the United States, the Obama administration should reach out to eminent Americans from both sides of the political aisle and begin a conversation about risk management and resiliency — both inside the Beltway and with the general public. There has been too little discussion of these topics in the United States, although security specialists — from nuclear weapons experts to counterterrorism officials — worry about this void. Risk rhetoric is just beginning to enter the zeitgeist. David Brooks’s Jan. 1 column in the New York Times touched on it, and Janet Napolitano’s statement before the Senate on Jan. 20 ends with a nod to the reality that there are no such things as absolute guarantees when it comes to national security. The national conversation needs to address historically what risks Americans have been willing to tolerate and how the United States developed resiliency in other eras. U.S. experts have a lot to learn from its British counterparts on these issues, so London is a good place to start the conversation.

How will the Yemeni government respond to these recommendations? The answer will depend on how seriously the international community addresses and tackles what concerns Yemenis. There are quiet signals that the Yemeni government would welcome an international approach as long as it does involve development needs. This approach makes sense, since failed human security results in hard security challenges. Also, the approach needs to feature Arab partners, not just or mainly the United States or European states.

The two-hour meeting on Jan. 27 in London will obviously not solve Yemen’s problems (or Obama’s). British Foreign Minister David Miliband declared that the London meeting will not be about "pledging," but surely a way ahead ought to emerge. London should be but a first step to generate and implement recommendations such as forming the Friends of Yemen contact group and the reintegration and risk reduction initiative. These efforts, if well resourced, can generate a counterintuitive by-product: finally closing Guantánamo.

Sarah E. Mendelson is director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Human Rights and Security Initiative.

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.