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There is No Excuse for This Savagery: We Too Are Responsible for the Massacre at Qala-i-Jhangi Fort
29 November 2001
We know how it ended, the prisoners' revolt in Abdul Rashid Dostam's Qala-i-Jhangi fort. Yesterday journalists were allowed in close enough to see the grotesque litter of dismembered bodies. But there were other things Dostam did not want them to inspect: a field, for instance, in which the bodies of some 50 Taliban fighters lay, their hands tied behind their backs.
The smooth account of how this prisoners' revolt began has some murky passages. The 15-day siege of Kunduz had ended with touching scenes. The blood bath that had been flagged up had been avoided. The prisoners - reports vary between 300 and 600 - were taken to Dostam's fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif, trusting, apparently, to Dostam's guarantees. So cordial were the arrangements that two truckloads of men widely considered to be the world's most dangerous prisoners were not even searched for weapons. On Saturday evening, after a Chechen prisoner detonated a hand grenade, Dostam, apparently, did not react.
Even more bizarre, the following morning, a CIA agent known as Michael entered a cell containing a large number of prisoners to interrogate them in the company only of "David", a second CIA operative. According to David, one of those prisoners replied, when asked why he was in Afghanistan: "To kill people like you," and threw himself upon his interrogator. Michael then shot four prisoners dead before being overpowered and killed. David fled and called in the airforce as the Taliban overpowered their guards and the revolt began.
No doubt the CIA is full of gallant figures, careless of their own safety, but this story seems preposterous. If they wanted to interrogate prisoners why did they not remove them to a place of interrogation singly or in twos?
We are invited to believe that in the final appalling hours of the prisoners' revolt they were fighting to the death and by then, no doubt they were. But if that had been their intent from the start, why did they not fight to the death defending Kunduz? Were they led into a trap in the fort, then provoked into rebellion once they realized that the promises they had been given were hollow?
On Monday evening, Dostam's adviser Alim Razim boasted that anyone left after the uprising would be killed. Repellent though this might be, he is hardly out of line. All the Northern Alliance commanders at Kunduz repeatedly stressed that the foreigners would not get out alive. Perhaps they took their cue from the US secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who has said he would prefer foreign fighters to be killed rather than to escape from Afghanistan.
There has been a deafening official silence following the massacre, a silence in which Amnesty International has called for an investigation into how this "prisoners' revolt" began. The Taliban's foreign fighters are not innocent civilians. But how you treat a captive enemy divides the warrior from the war criminal.
As prisoners, they presented a problem of custody and security and posed the question of what would eventually happen to them. If they were guilty of terrorism, would they be tried? Were they to be released when the war was over? But Donald Rumsfeld had vetoed that: they were terrorists who would return to killing. It's so much neater that they are dead - victims, the official story goes, of their own desire for martyrdom.
It is time to remember what this war was supposed to be about: a crusade against terror, a defense of the right to live in peace, a defense of the superior values of a civilized society against the immorality of the terrorist. War, as we are often reminded, is a messy business and one that democracies do not wage lightly. This war has the backing of a people wounded and enraged by September 11, but that does not mean that any savagery is justified. Surely the point about civilization is that it does not descend lightly into terror and barbarism? Already a US congressman has dismissed the call for an investigation as unnecessary. He could not be more wrong.
The Afghans, we hear, have a bent for savagery and it would be absurd to expect a war in Afghanistan to be fought by Queensberry Rules. But whose war is this and who must take responsibility for the war crimes that have been committed? This was a massacre repeatedly foretold. In two weeks of talking about the likely slaughter, there was no move to prevent it. Had it been only Dostam's forces who were fighting in Qala-i-Jhangi fort, there might have been a case for a regretful shrug. But the battle was conducted by US and British special forces side by side with Dostam's men and supported by US air power. Were they fighting by Dostam's rules or by their own? Or do we no longer bother with the distinction?