Rummy’s Other War Crimes

“The situation is completely under control. All of them were killed."

— Alim Razim, political adviser to Gen. Rashid Dostum, the Northern Alliance commander responsible for the sprawling Qalai Janghi prison complex.
Knight Ridder News Service (11/27/2001)

"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 testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Rumsfeld had good cause to be mystified at the uproar over the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghriab. 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 neo-cons, 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 physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners to obtain intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq. This is not out of character for Rummy who is no stranger to war crimes. During the Ford administration, as the youngest Secretary of Defense 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 very start of the ‘war on terror’, Rumsfeld saw fit to trash the Geneva Conventions and in November of 2001 ordered the United States 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-e-Sharif, they were transported to prison in containers that had poor air circulation. Many suffocated to death during the journey.

Of the six hundred inmates at the prison, only a few dozen survived. For more details on this war crime, please follow this link.

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 of journalists tried to challenge Rummy’s conduct at the time. Most notably, Robert Fisk of the Independent. 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 by the editor of NileMedia on this forgotten chapter of the Afghan war. It was titled ‘Killing POWs is a war crime, even in Afghanistan’ and published on November 26, 2001. We wrote it as a word of caution to Rumsfeld. He apparently didn’t have the time to read it. So, we edited it to be concise enough to fit into his busy schedule.

Killing POWs is a war crime, even in Afghanistan:

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-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 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 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 and 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 Qalai Janghi was a war crime, it will catch up with us and with Rummy.

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.

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. While Slobodan Milosovic will be accorded a fair trial in The Hague, 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 surrendering his arms.

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. But 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.

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 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 tiny minority concerned 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.