The United States’ resort to torture in responding to past terrorist threats raises questions about how the country will deal with captured members of the Islamic State.

The United States’ resort to torture in responding to past terrorist threats raises questions about how the country will deal with captured members of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). As a US-led coalition seeks to retake the ISIS stronghold in northern Iraq – and after that Raqqa, the group’s Syrian headquarters – the United States has opted to delegate responsibility for detainee handling to Iraqi and Kurdish forces. US involvement against ISIS thus far has comprised an air campaign supported by special-forces troops on the ground, limiting the possibility for detainee capture. Nevertheless, the policy of delegating responsibility for any prisoners generates two key questions: what steps should the United States take to ensure the humane treatment of detainees at the hands of its allied partners, and how will the United States craft a detention policy if the fight extends beyond the current air campaign?

The decision to defer to US allies for detention handling is the direct result of a desire to avoid the mistakes and abuses of the detention practices crafted during the early years of the Iraq War under the George W. Bush administration. However, relying on Iraqi and Kurdish forces for prisoner treatment puts the United States in the worst of all positions: the country will not be in control, but will still be responsible for the actions of its partners. The Obama administration’s unwillingness to implement a US-led detention policy set a dangerous precedent for future administrations that might engage in long-term military operations that entail large-scale detentions. A lack of planning for ISIS detainees will likely also lead to more crimes being committed by US-backed local fighters.

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Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault is Assistant Professor of Teaching at the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. She has also worked in the defence and security sectors of the US government.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

August–September 2017

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