Northern Alliance commander asphyxiated "hundreds" of surrendered Taliban in shipping containers
August 18, 2002 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Northern Alliance commander asphyxiated "hundreds" of surrendered Taliban in shipping containers "The benefit in fighting a proxy-style war in Afghanistan was victory on the cheap—cheap, at any rate, in American blood. The cost, NEWSWEEK’s investigation has established, is that American forces were working intimately with “allies” who committed what could well qualify as war crimes." (via drudge)
posted by Gilbert (21 comments total)
There's something to be said of fighting a war with your soldiers, showing a real commitment to peacekeeping and nation building. That said, it's hard to muster much sympathy for a group as opressive and repressive as the Taliban.
posted by owillis at 11:35 AM on August 18, 2002

This is a sad story, but I believe the same thing happened to German P.O.W.'s in WWII being transported in box cars to Western Europe.
posted by insomnyuk at 11:41 AM on August 18, 2002

I find the entire idea of war crimes a hard one to define. Where exactly do we draw the line, what is it that we can consider a crime? The fact that war crimes only ever appear to be perpertarted by those who lose makes things even muddier.

War, by it's very nature, is horrific, but when does it become criminal? If we say that it is the taking of a non-combatants life then we're all in trouble. Surely Western commanders must have forseen this sort of thing, in which case does that make them accessories to the crime? I really don't have any answers for this, I just find myself very uneasy at any talk of war crimes.
posted by ciderwoman at 12:25 PM on August 18, 2002

This story is just a confirmation of what was first reported months ago. But then, it was noted that the CIA had, in past, advised a South American (Columbian?) military to transport protestors across country in semi-sealed containers, which would kill many and incapacitate the rest.
This would be preferable to using a technique that would leave obvious marks, scars or other forensic evidence, at least as far as the CIA was concerned.
The idea was that it was novel enough to escape the idea of being a "war crime", and also gave the CIA "plausible deniability."
posted by kablam at 1:02 PM on August 18, 2002

wow, that's evil! those CIA guys (and gals) don't joke around. well, i guess if they were joking that'd just make them more evil :( still, so evil.
posted by kliuless at 2:26 PM on August 18, 2002

A very interesting article. I find it hard to believe that military officials didn't know about these "convoys" - what with Special Forces Units and CIA operatives in the area. As kablam mentioned above, "plausible deniability" would allow military officials to wash their hands of these atrocities or blame Afghani warlords... I've also read recently about U.S. officials trying to scare prisoners with the idea of sending them to allies (like Eygpt) that use torture.

Of course, there's no way of knowing for sure if the U.S. was aware of these convoys of container trucks and their "cargo". But, the fact remains, the Northern Alliance likely executed hundreds of prisoners of war - who negotiated a ceasefire, only to be double-crossed and imprisoned in brutal conditions...

People can argue that they were Talaban / Al Qaeda and that they would probably do the same if the roles were reversed (Remember that Special Forces member that fell out of his helicopter and was execute?), I would agree with you. But to stuff hundreds of people in containers to suffocate, without water... That's murder. And I believe that as the "world's leader of the democracy", the U.S. should think long and hard about supporting their more "questionable" allies. They supported the Mujahideen in the 1980s against the Soviets - many of whom went on to form Al Qaeda - and where that got the U.S.?
posted by Caffine_Fiend at 2:34 PM on August 18, 2002

Is it any wonder that the US is opposing the global war crimescourt?
posted by kayjay at 5:05 PM on August 18, 2002

Once an enemy surrenders, aren't they assured certain rights under the Geneva convention, rights like food, medical care, not to mention not being tortured to death?
posted by Grod at 6:11 PM on August 18, 2002


That applies to signatories of the Geneva Conventions - and I don't think the Taliban ever signed onto that, or the Northern Alliance.

In a way I can kind of understand the NA's pissed-offedness at the Taliban. The Taliban weren't any joy to live under, and arguably dragged Afghanistan back towards the stone age in their supposed quest for a pure Islamic state. I doubt many Afghani would harbor good wishes towards them. And consider it from a tribal ethics standpoint - when you conquer the other tribe, you kill all the fighters in that tribe. Saves you trouble later on...

It wasn't right, what they did, but I can understand why they would do it.

posted by JB71 at 6:30 PM on August 18, 2002

It wasn't right, what they did, but I can understand why they would do it.

I, for one, certainly don't understand the need to commit a horrible atrocity like this.

Suffocation is a horrible way to die. Dehydration is even worse.

Those who cover it up (or fail to cry foul) are just as guilty as the guys who loaded up the trucks and locked the doors.

I'm ashamed of my country for allowing the act itself and the coverup to happen. We're supposed to be above these types of acts.

Like Caffine_Fiend said, it's very difficult to believe that the Special Forces and CIA agents in the area knew nothing about those convoys.

At least the Special Forces soldier who fell out of the helicopter got a bullet to the back of the head - a much better fate than his killers suffered, I'm sure.
posted by hawkman at 7:09 PM on August 18, 2002

JB71, some people would disagree with you...
The Convention has gained widespread acceptance and it is likely that most of its principles now constitute customary international law (perhaps even jus cogens in some cases). Non-signatories may therefore be legally obligated to abide by the Convention.
I am aware however of the augment presented by Japan after WWII that it could not be charged with war crimes, because it was not a signatory.
I don't know however how true that story is.
posted by X-00 at 8:44 PM on August 18, 2002

I don't think the Taliban ever signed onto that, or the Northern Alliance.

You don't have to personally sign to be bound by the conventions: if a nation signs up, any subsequent 'regime change', to use the US's cute phraseology, carries over the obligations of the conventions to the new regime. Afghanistan's a signatory. Now, if you don't recognise the Taliban as ever being the legitimate government of Afghanistan, you probably recognise the one it replaced: that was the US position. And that previous government was, for all intents and purposes, the Northern Alliance. And if you want to weasel out of that one, and say that neither force represented the government, and in spite of US involvement, it was purely a civil war, and the Americans were just there on holiday, then Article 3 kicks in, imposing the conventions "the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties". (Summary here, and even if you don't like the source, you'll find others saying exactly the same thing.)

And people wonder why Karzai's being guarded day and night by Americans? Employ mercenaries, and end up becoming them. Expect US troops to be shot at, the moment their bosses stop paying off their pet Afghan warlords.
posted by riviera at 2:30 AM on August 19, 2002

X-00 and Riviera:

In legalese, is "may" the same thing as "will" or "must"? Is "Likely" the same thing as "is" or "are"?

Somehow, I don't think that it's seen quite the same way. If you look at things from a contract standpoint (being no lawyer myself, I'll admit) the wording in any document seems to be what's important. I nearly had a car stolen and sold off by a 'girlfriend' who talked me into putting her name on the title. At the registration office, the clerk told us there was no difference in the state we were residing in between "and" and "or" - we'd need both folks to sign off to sell the car.

So I told her to put "and" - and my girlfriend later went ballistic saying I didn't trust her. (Should have been a warning right there, eh?) Three weeks later, she stole my car, and I coudn't do a thing about it because her name was on the title. Two months later, she called me to come get the car from Washington, since she couldn't afford to get it registered and insured, and couldn't sell it because of that unfortunate "and"...

The key point being - the Taliban and NA aren't signatories to the Geneva Conventions, therefore they aren't bound by them. "Likely" and "may" aren't "is" and "are"...

posted by JB71 at 6:25 AM on August 19, 2002


I'm not a lawyer either... But I don't think the argument that the Talaban didn't sign the Geneva convention (so they're exempt) is a very strong one.

As Riviera pointed out, previous governments in Afghanistan did sign on to the Geneva convention, which would legally bind future governments to the same conditions. Granted, the Talaban and Northern Alliance aren't nearly the same "type" of governments as the previous governments of Afghanistan. But this new government that Karzai is trying to form claims to be a free and democratic country that is trying to reopen itself to the international community.

And even if the Talaban or the Northern Alliance didn't sign the Geneva convention, the United States did. And if they knew something about the alleged conduct of their Afghani warlord allies, I would say that they are just as culpable of genocide in the eyes of a warcrimes tribunal.

Too bad about your car... But at least you got it back.
posted by Caffine_Fiend at 8:30 AM on August 19, 2002

I'm really surprised there isn't more outrage about this. I've had a curdled sense of shame in my gut since I read about this yesterday; it's taken until now for me to be calm enough about it to even think about how to respond.

The US must bear at least some responsibility for this: even if no US soldiers were aware of these actions -- which is far from certain -- we're the ones who put the Northern Alliance in the position to do these things. We supported them, we commanded them, we fought with them: we can't simply wash our hands of their actions. Even if such behavior couldn't have been predicted, even if US forces somehow managed to remain totally ignorant of these actions as they occurred (which would be surprising, as even the Red Cross appears to have figured it out on their own), at the very least we ought to have the minimal decency to clean up the mess after the fact, and make sure those responsible are punished. Fat chance of that, though:

"The refusal of the United States to acknowledge and investigate the possibility that its military partner murdered hundreds or thousands of prisoners is a terrible repudiation of its commitment to hold perpetrators of war crimes accountable for their deeds." [executive director of Physicians for Human Rights; NYT link]

ciderwoman: wherever you draw the line on what a war crime is, I'd say stuffing people into airless shipping containers, shooting at them like fish in barrels, then executing the survivors and burying them in mass graves fits even the loosest definition.

owillis, your comment perfectly demonstrates the worst aspect of the "Axis of evil" rhetoric. Once we've defined the enemy as "evil", does that justify any action taken against them, however horrific? Does it count as fighting evil if you replace it with another just as bad? The Taliban were a repressive theocracy, but their soldiers weren't demons, weren't nazis, weren't even terrorists -- they were just soldiers. I respect you, I think you're a pretty smart guy even if I often disagree with your views -- but I think you should be ashamed of a comment like that. I'm sorry, but that's just horrifyingly callous.
posted by ook at 9:48 AM on August 19, 2002

I'm really surprised there isn't more outrage about this. I've had a curdled sense of shame in my gut since I read about this yesterday; it's taken until now for me to be calm enough about it to even think about how to respond.

I'm still not there yet, so: what ook said.
posted by lia at 10:48 AM on August 19, 2002

The key point being - the Taliban and NA aren't signatories to the Geneva Conventions, therefore they aren't bound by them. "Likely" and "may" aren't "is" and "are"...

Caffiene_Fiend said it, but I'll say it again: the government of Afghanistan was a signatory to the Conventions, in 1956, which are binding upon all future regimes, unless explicitly revoked; and Common Article 3 makes all parties in civil wars in the territory of a 'High Contracting Party' (a state that has signed up) subject to the minimum standards of care set out within them. So it doesn't matter one jot whether Mullah Omar or General Dostum signed up personally. regardless of how relevant you think your girlfriend and your car are to the situation in Afghanistan. Now that's the key point.
posted by riviera at 11:55 AM on August 19, 2002

It's a graphic description of an unplesant death ook, but I still say you need to work out where the line is. Look at all the people who died in Argentina, with no small help from Kissinger (the man who bombed Cambodia). Should he be up for war crimes too? What about the people wh ordered the bombing of Dresden? PLenty of civillians had a pretty horrible death there too.

My point is that to pursue someone for war crimes you have to define exactly what they are, it's not enough to just go after something that is (as this is) extremely unpleasant. I think we need a definition of what a war crime is, and more to the point, what isn't a war crime.

Mai Lai anyone?
posted by ciderwoman at 4:41 PM on August 19, 2002

There's very little question in my mind that My Lai was criminal. Kissinger is not exactly one of the shining heroes of the 20th century, either. Dresden or Hiroshima, though... you make a fair point. Much as I'd like to turn the clock back on the concept of "total war," there seems to be at least some consensus that civilians can be a legitimate target, in some situations. And what those situations are, exactly, is distressingly unclear. There are doubtlessly many other, equally unpleasant circumstances -- at what point ethnic civil war turns into genocide, for example -- where the difference between "war crime" and just plain "war" is not well defined. And you're right: it should be.

This situation, though, does not fall anywhere close to a gray area. The Geneva convention is as close to universally accepted as any treaty is ever likely to be; it specifically applies to Afganis (as Riviera and Caffeine_Fiend have shown) and doubly so to Afganis fighting as part of a US operation; it sets quite clear rules for treatment of prisoners of war. Asphyxiation in shipping containers is, it is safe to say, not within the bounds of those rules.

This isn't a bomb accidentally dropped on a wedding party; it's not even a case of possible mistaken identity or confused circumstances as in My Lai. This is intentional torture and murder of prisoners. It doesn't get much more clear-cut than that.
posted by ook at 6:43 PM on August 19, 2002

I know this thread is probably dead - but I just came across this link on CNN concerning the thread's subject and thought I'd post it.

Comments? Thoughts?
posted by Caffine_Fiend at 6:19 AM on August 25, 2002

Good for Franks. Thanks for updating an older thread. Why don't we do this more often?
posted by sheauga at 8:24 AM on September 14, 2002

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