IRAQ: War crimes flashback
Ahmed Amr

"The situation is completely under control. All of them were killed," Alim Razim, a political advisor to Northern Alliance commander Gen. Rashid Dostum, said after Dostum put down a revolt at the Qalai Janghi prison complex in November 2001 with US and British special forces.

Fast forward to May 2004 and US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld testifying about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses in Iraq before the Senate Armed Services Committee: "The problem at that stage was one dimensional, it wasn"t three dimensional, it wasn"t video, it wasn"t color. It was a very different thing."

Rumsfeld had good cause to be mystified at the uproar over the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. His thoughts must have drifted back to the good old one-dimensional days in Afghanistan when he could approve air force strikes to put down a prison riot and special treatment for "illegal combatants."

For the neocons, those were the glory days when America had a heart full of vengeance and eyes full of blindness. Taking full advantage of a very angry America, the defense department, with legal guidance from Douglas Feith, decided to throw out the Geneva Conventions along with every other international constraint on the conduct of war.

Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker has concluded that Rumsfeld authorized the expansion of a secret program that encouraged the physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners to obtain intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq. This is not out of character for Rumsfeld who is no stranger to war crimes. During the Ford administration, as the youngest defense secretary in US history, he buried the incriminating files of the Tiger Force that was responsible for dozens of "My Lai" style atrocities in Vietnam.

From the start of the war on terror, Rumsfeld saw fit to trash the Geneva Conventions, and, in November 2001, ordered the US air force to annihilate Afghan POWs who rioted at Qalai Janghi. It later emerged that they had good cause to rise up. After surrendering in Mazar-I-Sharif, they were transported to prison in containers that had almost no air circulation. Most suffocated. Of the 600 prison inmates, only a few dozen survived the journey. (For details on this war crime, go to: asia/1683425.stm)

Perhaps if more attention had been paid to Rumsfeld"s conduct in putting down the Afghan prison riot, we would not be witnessing the horrors of Abu Ghraib. A few journalists tried to challenge Rumsfeld"s conduct at the time. Most notably, Robert Fisk of the Independent newspaper. But given the mood of the country, their voices were drowned out by the jingoistic mass media cabal.

It is sobering to read an article in NileMedia on this forgotten chapter of the Afghan war. Entitled "Killing POWs is a war crime, even in Afghanistan," the article, published on November 26, 2001, was written as a word of caution to Rumsfeld. He apparently didn"t have the time to read it. So here is a version concise enough to fit into his busy schedule:

Stories are emerging of a POW "prison riot" in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of almost every single inmate. We may never know why so many were slaughtered. But the details are certainly worthy of an investigation. The scene of the carnage was the Qalai Janghi prison complex, a fort near the northern Afghan City of Mazar-I-Sharif. According to the BBC the riot was "brought under control" with US air strikes.

None other than Rashid Dostum, a warlord commanding a faction of the Northern Alliance, called in the air strikes. Dostum has a history that is vulgar even by the standards of Afghan warlords. A week earlier, in Mazar-I-Sharif, there was another scene of mass slaughter after the city surrendered to Dostum. The word is apparently out that Rumsfeld is indifferent to the fate of any POWs, especially if they appear to include non-Afghans. While this might be satisfactory for Americans who want to see some old fashioned "vigilante justice," it is a dangerous road to travel for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that it is a violation of international law to kill a POW after he lays down his arms. Even in Afghanistan. If the various Afghan factions have been jaded by 23 years of war into ignoring some very basic norms of international behavior, it should be made clear to our elected officials that the US is not in Afghanistan to demonstrate that we can behave just like a vengeful Afghan tribe.

Killing POWs is nothing new. Hitler routinely killed Russian POWs or allowed them to starve or freeze to death by the hundreds of thousands. The Russians, and by some accounts other World War II allies, were no more generous to German POWs. In Vietnam, American POWs were treated to conditions that fell far short of being humane and Vietnamese POWs were held in the infamous tiger cages. The Israelis killed Egyptian POWs in 1956 and 1967. The list goes on. It is one aspect of war that is rarely forgiven or forgotten. If what happened in Qalai Janghi was a war crime, it will catch up with us and with Rumsfeld.

Believe what you want to believe about whether this is a war of choice or a war that couldn"t be avoided. Be certain of this: killing POWs is morally wrong and politically stupid; even in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld and company should be grateful that the American people are giving them a second chance to build sane and rational foreign and defense policies. America is a nation still in shock over the atrocities that assaulted our shores on 9/11. In such a state, many citizens have seen fit to place full faith in the wisdom of our governors. But there are enough of us who remain skeptical of their talents for managing a war. To be at war is not a comfortable emotional or mental space for most Americans. Peace is the common man"s passion, even if war is a favorite menu item for our elected elites and our un-elected media titans.

Let us hope that whatever 9/11 did to our spirit, we have not been so wounded that we would ignore war crimes in times of crisis. The few of us who bother to notice the details need to keep the record straight.

We must never allow ourselves to fall into the trap of idolizing our leaders or believing in their infallibility. We elect presidents and senators, not popes. We elect them to govern in accordance with our laws and to be careful with our national interests and our national reputation. Dissent is the smelling salt that gives elected leaders an opportunity to reconsider policies like killing POWs.

9/11 was not a license for American citizens to ignore the policies of their government. 9/11 should not diminish our fervent belief in the rule of law. If we are going to let Rumsfeld sanction the slaughter of POWs, let us first pass a law with a sunset clause that specifically sanctions such mayhem and let us all pretend that we will only allow such crimes to be forgiven in Afghanistan. At least that way, Rumsfeld can keep company with Dostum without worrying about the legal implications. We wouldn"t want to constrain a genius like Rumsfeld."

Ahmed Amr is editor of