POW Atrocities: an Ugly Lesson


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 Alliance’s hands.

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 facilities.

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.