As the U.S. government lays the groundwork for war against Iraq, the Bush
administration must come to grips with the consequences of alliances with local
forces that show little respect for the laws of armed conflict -- in particular,
for the treatment of prisoners of war. Failure to do so in Afghanistan resulted
in the execution of hundreds of captured combatants and the imprisonment of thousands
of others in life-threatening squalor.
Situations like Afghanistan, in which the U.S. provides extensive support and
fights alongside local forces, require new doctrine, training, planning and explicit
rules of engagement that ensure humane treatment of captured combatants and the
safety of civilians.
American military doctrine requires U.S. forces to comply with principles and
laws of war. But the Defense Department does not oblige the U.S. military to take
specific action to prevent abuses by its partners, agents and allies in the field
of combat. Its only requirement is that U.S. soldiers report any violations.
The consequences of the U.S. military's weak war crimes doctrine were apparent
in Afghanistan. U.S. Special Forces and CIA officers were actively involved in
the battle to wrest the city of Kunduz from the Taliban, and they participated
in the surrender negotiations. U.S. military and intelligence personnel interviewed
the captured fighters at Sheberghan prison and other detention facilities, selecting
some for further investigation at a U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
But they left virtually all other responsibility for the Taliban POWs in the Northern
The result was an atrocity. Northern Alliance commanders allied with Gen. Abdul
Rashid Dostum packed the surrendered Taliban members into closed container trucks,
where hundreds died of suffocation. Thousands of surviving POWs were crammed into
prison cells designed to hold one-tenth the number. Water for 3,000 men came from
a single rusty spigot, sanitation was grossly inadequate and food and medical
care were minimal. Deaths from dysentery and exposure were common.
In the Afghan theater, the Northern Alliance fighters were agents of the United
States. Until the Americans resurrected it, the alliance was a spent force sequestered
in less than 10% of Afghan territory. But with American air power, financing,
intelligence, equipment, training and direction -- and U.S. Special Forces at
its side -- the Northern Alliance defeated the Taliban.
The U.S. did not delegate to the Northern Alliance the task of winning the
war against the Taliban. It did, apparently, delegate responsibility in one realm:
complying with Geneva Convention obligations to treat captured combatants humanely.
If ever a fighting force was more unsuited to the task, it was the Northern
Alliance warriors, with their 20-year history of executing surrendered or captured
combatants, and torturing, raping and killing noncombatants.
Moreover, the Northern Alliance had suffered cruelly at the hands of the Taliban,
which had its own record of torture and killing. Reprisals by the victorious Northern
Alliance should have been anticipated. When they occurred, the United States turned
a blind eye.
Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite fighters who might be aligned with the United States
in an attack against Saddam Hussein have experienced widespread abuses at the
hands of Hussein's military, police and intelligence officers. What can the United
States do to prevent its Iraqi partners from committing acts of revenge once the
tables are turned? The execution of captured combatants by coalition partners
would morally implicate the United States, erode international support and bury
possible intelligence useful to the investigation of terrorism.
One practical step would be to insist on oversight, by the International Committee
of the Red Cross, of the surrender, transfer and confinement of enemy combatants.
Another could be to dedicate a military reserve unit to work with local coalition
partners to carry out a census of those captured and arrange decent detention
All U.S. military personnel could be required to protect the local civilian
population from abuses. And if atrocities are committed by local partners, the
U.S. military should secure all evidence, carry out a full investigation and hold
accountable those responsible.
The mass murder of surrendered Taliban fighters was an ugly and preventable
crime. In the event of an attack on Iraq, the president must order the military
to anticipate and prevent similar crimes there.
Holly J. Burkhalter is U.S. policy director of Physicians
for Human Rights.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times