Some human rights alarm bells appear to have been triggered by the scale of the carnage, by reports alleging massacres of captured Taliban fighters in other centers and by reports from a number of Western journalists who claim to have seen a number Taliban corpses with their hands tied behind their backs. Alliance leader General Rashid Dostum insists his men never tied up the prisoners. And both he and U.S. and British officials insist that what transpired at Qalai Janghi was a pitched battle in which the prisoners had elected to die fighting, leaving the anti-Taliban forces no choice but to eliminate them as swiftly as possible. "We had no intention of maltreating them," an Alliance spokesman reiterated Thursday. "They got killed because of their own stubbornness." And one British official insisted that under the circumstances, there was no room for squeamishness.
The rules of war
Even so, the humanitarians, contend, there are rules of war, and they want to investigate whether those rules may have been broken. Article 42 of the Geneva Convention states that "the use of weapons against prisoners of war, especially against those who are escaping or attempting to escape, shall constitute an extreme measure, which shall always be preceded by warnings appropriate to the circumstances." According to most accounts of the circumstances, many of the prisoners were trying to kill their captors. Human rights advocates responding to the events at Qalai Janghi also point to a 1977 protocol to the Geneva Convention prohibiting an "order that there shall be no survivors, to threaten an adversary therewith or to conduct hostilities on this basis." But what if the prisoners themselves had elected to fight to the death? That claim itself is worthy of examination, a Red Cross official suggested to a British newspaper: "How many of the prisoners were armed and how many had a real combat role?" he said. "If 700 prisoners were heavily armed then it may be argued that the fortress became a legitimate combat target. But nobody knows the answers to these questions."
The Qalai Janghi prisoners were foreign Taliban volunteers who surrendered with the Taliban at Kunduz, and had then been separated from their Afghan comrades and brought to General Dostum's fortress. The Northern Alliance had promised amnesty for Afghan Taliban fighters; the foreigners were a problem. The U.S. had made clear during the siege of Kunduz that it would not accept any outcome that allowed Al Qaeda operatives to escape to other countries they should, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said bluntly, "either be killed or taken prisoner." Dostum had taken the captives to his fortress, announcing that he would hand them over to the United Nations after processing. Exactly how he planned to do this was unclear, since there is currently no UN security presence in Afghanistan.
Calls for an investigation
If Dostum's intentions were unclear, his security arrangements proved catastrophic. Even before the revolt began, two senior Northern Alliance commanders were killed in the fortress on Saturday night by a hand grenade detonated by a Taliban prisoner. But the conflagration that killed most of the prisoners began on Sunday morning, triggered according to an emerging consensus among news reports when prisoners set upon two CIA operatives sent to interrogate them in the hope of weeding out Al Qaeda members. One of these men, Johnny "Mike" Spann, was reportedly beaten to death; the other escaped to a far corner of the prison as a massive firefight broke out between Northern Alliance guards and prisoners who carried concealed weapons, or had disarmed the guards and broken into the fortress's armory.
It took three days of fighting by Northern Alliance soldiers, backed by U.S. special forces and British SAS troops and American warplanes to quell the uprising. A number of Northern Alliance troops were killed, and five Americans were wounded by a stray bomb dropped by a U.S. plane. Western officials say that as ugly as the bloodbath may have been, the Taliban prisoners brought it upon themselves by putting their captors in mortal danger. But the U.N.'s Robinson and the Red Cross want to examine whether the military response to the revolt was "proportionate" to the threat it represented. Such concerns may ring a little in a country whose wars have never been fought according to Geneva Convention rules. They may not be paid much heed in the U.S., either, where the major media focus has been on "Mike" Spann as a heroic first American combat casualty in the war against the perpetrators of the September 11 atrocity. But the British media and important sections of London's political establishment are saying that the "Afghan way of war" notwithstanding, the role of British and U.S. soldiers at Qalai Janghi demands an inquiry into whether the suppression of the revolt conformed with the rules those countries set for their own armed forces. Naysayers will simply point out that those rules don't really offer guidelines for responding to a mass kamikaze situation.
A Northern Alliance spokesman said Thursday that his organization would allow Amnesty International to conduct an investigation, maintaining that prisoners were victim of their own extremism. But Amnesty responded that while it would be happy to send an observer, the responsibility for convening such an inquiry lay with the Northern Alliance, the U.S. and Britain. Which may mean it's unlikely to happen any time soon because there's certainly not likely to be much pressure either in Washington or Kabul to account for the deaths of some 400 foreigners willing to fight to the death for Osama bin Laden's jihad.