Rage grows over war atrocities

Pressure's on U.S. to rein in Northern Alliance troops

Linda Diebel
Staff Reporter
Oleg Nikishin/GETTY IMAGES
HUMAN SHIELD: A Northern Alliance fighter uses a body as a shield during a battle with Taliban forces near Mazar-e-Sharif.
Jerome Delay/AP
PRISONERS OF WAR: Photos of detainees are scattered on the ground of a jail in Kunduz, Afghanistan yesterday.
WASHINGTON — International concern is growing that the United States is turning a blind eye to atrocities being committed by its Northern Alliance allies on the ground in Afghanistan.

These fears, expressed by rights groups, aid agencies, the United Nations and some political leaders, are based on mounting evidence that Alliance troops are executing Taliban prisoners in northern cities — exhibiting the same savagery the Bush administration attributes to the crumbling Taliban regime.

"The United States has turned a blind eye to what's going on," says Peter Rosenthal, a human rights lawyer and University of Toronto law professor. "(There's been) a signal to the Northern Alliance they can do what they want (with prisoners) ... And Prime Minister (Jean) Chrétien has just given the U.S. a blank cheque to do whatever it chooses about Afghanistan, and we'll support it."

Not only has Washington ignored increasing evidence of Northern Alliance brutality, say critics, but the Bush administration has gone so far as to signal its approval for whatever Alliance commanders decide to do with captured Taliban troops.

In fact, that signal has been: better dead than alive. That policy was made clear from the start when President George W. Bush said he wanted suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden "dead or alive."

"Well, the president's policy is `dead or alive.'" Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld joked last week with reporters. "I have my preference."

"The implication that a dead enemy is better than a live one will not have been lost on the murderous warlords of the Alliance," wrote the Times of London. "If they think they can get away with killing their Taliban prisoners, they will do so."

That appears to be exactly what has been happening in recent days with increasing reports the Northern Alliance, which has essentially won the war because of the massive American bombing campaign, has been committing war crimes by massacring Taliban prisoners-of-war.

Eyewitness media reports document, among other incidents, the killing of 100 surrendering Taliban soldiers in Mazar-e-Sharif and the execution of Taliban fighters as they lay wounded in the streets of Kunduz.

The apparent hands-off approach by the Pentagon goes beyond bin Laden to Taliban troops, who reportedly have been rebuffed in attempts to surrender, or who know that surrendering is not an option with the Northern Alliance.

"Surrender must be an option that does not end in certain death," wrote the Times. "It is clear which side — if something as diffuse as the Northern Alliance can be called a side — is winning, but the key to whether this war comes to a swift end or spirals off in endless bloodshed, depends now on the treatment of prisoners."

At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld says the U.S. wants nothing to do with prisoners, and that their fate depends on the Northern Alliance. "The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders ... nor to accept prisoners ... If people are trying (to surrender), we are declining," he told reporters. "That's for the Northern Alliance and that's for the tribes in the south to make their own judgments."

What about mounting evidence that the Northern Alliance allows ethnic Afghans to surrender, while shooting foreigners, mostly Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens, who have fought with the Taliban?

At several briefings, Rumsfeld joked about what happened to prisoners.

"You're not suggesting they would be shot?" a reporter asked Rumsfeld about Washington's no-prisoner policy.

"Oh my goodness, no. You sound like Charlie ... `summary?' ...`summary?' ... I remember that line," said a laughing Rumsfeld, referring to another journalist's question about the summary executions of surrendering Pakistanis in the captured city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Some Northern Alliance commanders have even vowed to kill all foreigners fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In other briefings, Rumsfeld appears to have set up the argument that the only choices for Taliban fighters is death, or allowing them to be set free to "make their mischief elsewhere."

Terms for prisoners of war, under international law, don't seem to be part of the equation.

"It is shocking that the messages from the Pentagon have been unclear on the basic and simple point" that if fighters surrender, they will not be massacred, Britain's Guardian newspaper said.

From Toronto, Rosenthal said Washington is responsible for reining in its Alliance proxy fighters, and making it clear that the U.S. does not condone the summary execution of prisoners.

"It seems that the United States is the prime adversary of the Taliban. It should be their responsibility because they have initiated this whole sequence of events. They should be responsible for the consequences."

Despite reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the U.N., as well as increasing public criticism of the Alliance from the British and Pakistani governments, among others, Rumsfeld said there is no evidence of war crimes.

He has no information, he told reporters, "not even the beginning of a scrap of validation," of allegations of massacres at Mazar-e-Sharif.

Last week, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw urged the Northern Alliance to treat prisoners humanely, in accordance with the 1949 Geneva Convention and the Hague regulations on land warfare.