Allegations that a U.S. ally was responsible for the deaths of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners early in the Afghan war are part of a campaign by human rights groups and other critics to curb the power of warlords, whose influence in Afghanistan has contributed to the revival of the Taliban.
Their cause has found a willing partner in the Obama administration, whose decision to revisit the case was a clear sign to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that Washington wants him to rein in the warlords. Despite their reputation for brutality, Karzai has cultivated some warlords as allies with an eye toward next month's presidential election.
President Barack Obama's relationship with Karzai has been cooler than the one the Afghan leader enjoyed with former President George W. Bush. Obama has discontinued the biweekly videoconferences between the U.S. and Afghan presidents, and members of his administration have openly referred to Karzai's government as inefficient and corrupt — something unheard of in the Bush years.
The allegations date to November 2001, when hundreds if not thousands of Taliban prisoners died in transit to a prison after surrendering to U.S.-backed Northern Alliance forces in the northern city of Kunduz.
The claims drew renewed attention this month after The New York Times quoted U.S. government and human rights officials accusing the Bush administration of failing to investigate the reported deaths, widely blamed on Afghan forces loyal to warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Question of accountability
Obama has ordered his national security team to investigate reports that U.S. allies were responsible for the deaths of as many as 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war during the opening days of the Afghan conflict. Dostum has denied the allegation.
John Dempsey, of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Kabul, said Obama was sending "a strong signal that accountability and the rule of law matter."
"Until very recently, top officials have argued that security trumps justice, saying it is better to bring these guys into the government's tent rather than hold them accountable for the serious crimes they've committed," Dempsey said.
Regionally based warlords rose to power in Afghanistan in the turmoil that followed the Soviet withdrawal from the country in 1989. Commanders such as Dostum, the late leader Ahmed Shah Massood and others held sway in parts of the country even after the Taliban seized power in Kabul.
Many of those power brokers, including Dostum, joined forces with the U.S. in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban. They forged alliances with Karzai — a move that his critics believe undermined the authority of the central government, promoted corruption and contributed to the Taliban revival.
"The impunity enjoyed for years by powerful warlords like Dostum undermines the government's legitimacy, and the Taliban have taken advantage of the lack of accountability and rule of law by offering their own, albeit harsh, brand of justice," Dempsey said.
The allegations were revived in the politically charged atmosphere surrounding the Aug. 20 presidential election, in which Karzai is favored to win a second term.
To bolster his chances, Karzai has forged alliances with key figures across the country, including some warlords. Human rights groups fear that if victorious he is unlikely to turn his back on his allies.
Cozy relations with Karzai?
For example, one of his running mates is Gen. Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a warlord who was the top Northern Alliance commander when the Taliban prisoners reportedly died.
Dostum was suspended last year as chief of staff of the armed forces for failing to cooperate in the investigation of the shooting of a rival. Karzai reinstated him to his largely ceremonial post in what was widely seen as an attempt to win votes from the general's Uzbek minority.
Dostum, currently living in Turkey, has vigorously denied any wrongdoing in the treatment of Taliban prisoners.
Witnesses have claimed his forces placed the prisoners in sealed cargo containers and drove them for two days to Sheberghan Prison, suffocating them and then burying them en masse, according to a State Department report. U.S. special operations troops were working alongside Dostum's troops at the time.
In a written response to the charges this month, Dostum said the fact that "no intentional massacre of prisoners of war had taken place ... was also confirmed by those who were responsible for accepting the surrender of these prisoners of war, including doctors and members of the military forces of the United States.
"In addition, it was reported to me that the U.S. Defense Department had also confirmed this," Dostum said in a letter, written on an Afghan government official letterhead and bearing the stamp of his office.
His comments did not satisfy international human rights groups that have been pressing for a full investigation — not only of the Afghan role but that of U.S. troops as well.
Abrashi has been an AP correspondent in Kabul since 2006.