Friday, July 10, 2009

Did the Bush Administration Look the Other Way on War Crimes in Afghanistan?

That the U.S. may have worked with and supported a war criminal in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 does not surprise me, but that doesn't render this story any less depressing:

After a mass killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war by the forces of an American-backed warlord during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Bush administration officials repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the episode, according to government officials and human rights organizations.

American officials had been reluctant to pursue an investigation — sought by officials from the F.B.I., the State Department, the Red Cross and human rights groups — because the warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, was on the payroll of the C.I.A. and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in 2001, several officials said. They said the United States also worried about undermining the American-supported government of President Hamid Karzai, in which General Dostum had served as a defense official.

Dostum is accused of having overseen the murders of hundreds and perhaps thousands of Taliban prisoner of war deaths. The report mentions FBI documents from 2003 in which detainees back up the allegations of being crammed into overstuffed containers and left to die or being shot. Dostum himself admits that there were around 200 under his watch, but that they were due to "combat wounds and disease." And satellite pictures and human rights groups have uncovered evidence of a massive grave in the area.

All of this combines to paint a grim picture of the actions of a man the U.S. openly supported during the Bush administration. Which of course brings the question around to Bush officials: if the administration was paying and openly supporting a war criminal, and if that war criminal gets convicted, could Bush officials be more likely to face charges? Of course, the landscape of this case could change, but right now, it doesn't seem like Bush or Cheney are directly tied to Dostum. Even if the administration announced its diplomatic support for a war criminal, that (unfortunately) doesn't translate into being charged as a criminal oneself, as the U.S. has proven time and again in the second half of the 20th century.

But things get a bit chippier once we get into the Department of Defense, under Rumsfeld at the time.

In 2002, Physicians for Human Rights asked Defense Department officials to open an investigation and provide security for its forensics team to conduct a more thorough examination of the gravesite. “We met with blanket denials from the Pentagon,” recalls Jennifer Leaning, a board member with the group. “They said nothing happened.”

Pentagon spokesmen have said that the United States Central Command conducted an “informal inquiry,” asking Special Forces personnel members who worked with General Dostum if they knew of a mass killing by his forces. When they said they did not, the inquiry went no further.

“I did get the sense that there was little appetite for this matter within parts of D.O.D.,” said Marshall Billingslea, former acting assistant defense secretary for special operations, referring to the Department of Defense.

I admit openly that I don't know enough of the details of international law to fully know what constitutes a "cover-up" of a known war crime, but this does seem to be pushing the envelope of the definition of a "cover-up." Blanket denials to investigate the matter independently and taking at face value the word of people who worked together with the alleged war criminal in order to close the investigation look suspect, to put it lightly. What role, if any, Donald Rumsfeld may have had in this is unclear for now, but one can't help but think he knew something, given that one of his deputy secretaries, Paul Wolfowitz, was more than aware of the problems:

Another former defense official, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, recalled that the prisoner deaths came up in a conversation with Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense at the time, in early 2003.

“Somebody mentioned Dostum and the story about the containers and the possibility that this was a war crime,” the official said. “And Wolfowitz said we are not going to be going after him for that.”

In an interview, Mr. Wolfowitz said he did not recall the conversation. However, Pentagon documents obtained by Physicians for Human Rights through a Freedom of Information Act request confirm that the issue was debated by Mr. Wolfowitz and other officials

Again, it's no surprise that Wolfowitz's stench would be attached to this particular case - he was actively involved in some of the darkest parts of the Bush administration's foreign policy. The documents confirmed by the FIA request indicate Wolfowitz knew exactly what had happened and what the allegations were, and was simply not interested in going after Dostum for the crimes. Given that position, plus the "blanket denials" the Pentagon issued, Wolfowitz comes out looking particularly bad. It seems to early to say if he looks "war criminal" bad, but if nothing else, he is attached to yet another despicable act of support for an open criminal, all in the name of furthering the Bush administration's misguided, inept, and downright destructive foreign policies.

Of course, if this case gains greater traction, the wingnut talking points are easy to predict: "It was a state of war! After 9/11! The Taliban was teh evil!" Many may agree with this, but it doesn't take away from a central tenet codified in such quaint documents like the Geneva conventions: "war criminals" of any stripe are tried and sentenced for their crimes in courts. They are not summarily executed, and they are certainly not thrown into overcrowded containers to slowly die (if they aren't shot) and then be dumped in a mass grave. What Dostum's men did, with or without his orders (and it would seem from the report that he was more than aware of those actions), constitutes a violation of the Geneva conventions and a war crime.

It's too soon to know where this will end up - probably at most with Dostum facing some level of ostracization, but not enough to be completely deprived of any power. I'd like to be proven wrong, but this doesn't seem like the kind of thing that will snowball a la the Pinochet case. And as for those in the administration who tied themselves, directly or indirectly, to this kind of war criminal, it will mark just one more file in the case that should be filed against the Bush Administration's own criminals, but never will be.