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November 26, 2001
Killing POWs is a war crime, even in Afghanistan

By Ahmed Amr.


Stories are emerging today 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-e-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-e-Sharif, there was another scene of mass slaughter after the city was 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. These new policies, which have alarmed even our British allies, became very clear in a number of statements issued by the Department of Defense during the course of last week.

While this might be deemed a satisfactory policy for the majority of 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 reason 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 twenty-three years of war into ignoring some very basic norms of international behavior, it should be made clear to our elected officials that America is not in Afghanistan to demonstrate that we can behave just like another 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. In that same war, Vietnamese POWs were held in the infamous Tiger cages. During the Gulf War, Terry McVeigh shot at surrendering Iraqi POWs. It is quite unlikely that he was the only soldier who committed a war crime during Desert Storm. 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 that POW camp was a war crime, it will catch up with us.

Aside from the question of morality and law, there are practical considerations. If a combatant knows that he has no option of surrender, he will fight like a fanatic. If the wizards in Washington think that this will lead to beneficial results, they should reconsider what the image of thousands of fighters holding out to the last man might do for the reputation of Bin Laden. Further, they should consider the danger this poses for the innocent civilians that will be caught in a fight to the death.

In this land of ancient tribal grievances, do we really need the majority Pushtans to believe that their men, who comprise the bulk of the Taliban, can be executed even if they surrender their arms? Do we want the Pushtan 'foreigners' in Pakistan to get the message that their young zealots were murdered even after surrendering?

Do we need is to enhance the already dangerous reputation of Al-Qaeda? If there is one central objective in this war, it must be to diminish the appeal of Bin Laden. That is easier done by having his young followers and Taliban sympathizers surrender. And by surrendering acknowledge defeat. Our reputation will be enhanced as victors who spare the lives of the vanquished. Especially in this 'new kind of war.'

On Sunday, the head of the Northern Alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, declared that even foreigners fighting with the Taliban would be allowed to surrender and than handed over to The United Nations. News reports had the United States setting up special camps on Guam to hold such prisoners. Anguished debates raged over the Bush administration's decision to try such prisoners in secret military tribunals. Word came from The Hague that Slobodan Milosovic would get a fair trial in The Hague. Even after acts of criminal genocide in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Yet, an ignorant teenage Pushtan who crossed over the Afghan border two weeks ago, in a foolish act of bravado, could very well be murdered in a 'POW riot' even after wisely taking the chance of surrendering his arms.

This 'POW riot' needs to be investigated. Don't hold your breath for the intellectual degenerates who toil for our mass media lords. They are chasing Bin Laden with the same inane tunnel vision they used to chase Lewinsky, O. J. Simpson, Chandra and the sharks. As moral morons go, these are the bottom fish in the muddy swamp of modern American journalism. Somebody should send them back to Fantasy Island to find out whether the plane has landed. They would not begin to understand why it would be worth while to investigate this 'prison riot.'

Do they even Remember Attica? I don't recall New York's governor Nelson calling in the Air Force to quell that prison riot. Don't bother our intellectually challenged tabloid 'journalists' with history. They think Attica is a place near Woodstock.

Believe what you want to believe about whether this is a war of choice or a war that couldn't be avoided. Getting rid of Taliban rule will not be lamented by future generations of Afghans. Bringing Bin Laden and hard-core Al-Qaeda members to justice is something a vast majority of Americans agree on. Saving millions of fellow human beings from the ravishes of famine is a task that brings hope to the whole world. The starving Afghans who were ignored last winter have a good chance of being fed this winter. Yet be certain of this; killing POWs is morally wrong and politically stupid; even in Afghanistan. It is not something that can enhance America's national interests or reputation.

Consider this sobering thought. If the Twin Towers had collapsed due to an engineering failure, we would not have hired the same architects to rebuild replacement towers. Chances are, we would hot have even allowed them to participate in the cleanup. Americans have rallied around the government because they have rallied to America's cause. It is an existential cause that demanded immediate unity of purpose and this certainly is no time for a change of leadership.

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 were allowed to happen on our shores on 911. 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 they could not manage to avoid. There are many of us who wonder why Canada and Sweden do not have these burdens. For now, we are a silent minority. People the world over are just hoping that those in charge of the shop don't cause further damage when handling the super power equipment.

War and conflict 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 911 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. 911 was not a license for American citizens to ignore the policies of their government. 911 should not diminish our feverent 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 the editor of NileMedia.com. This article may be published at will.