In the capital Kabul, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said today that it is "not possible" for ANA troops, trained by international forces, to behead prisoners.
Small teams of U.S. troops and Special Forces have been conducting joint patrols and commando operations for months with the fledgling Afghan National Army in a bid to hunt down Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in southern and southeastern Afghanistan.
Commander Namatullah Tokhi of the ANA's 27th Division told Western news agencies the suspected Taliban fighters were beheaded after guerrillas captured and decapitated an Afghan soldier and an Afghan interpreter who were part of a joint Afghan-U.S. patrol team.
Tokhi was quoted by Reuters as saying: "[The Taliban] cut off their heads with a knife. So when our forces arrested four Taliban, we cut off their heads, too."
Tokhi told the German news agency dpa that four suspected Taliban were killed "on the spot" during a battle in the Arghandab district of Zabul Province that also involved U.S. troops on a joint patrol.
But Tokhi later told AP that U.S. troops were not present when the beheadings took place.
Tokhi's claim could not be immediately verified.
John Sifton, an expert on Afghanistan who works for the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL today that it is important for U.S. officials to investigate Tokhi's claim to determine whether the alleged beheadings actually occurred.
"If forces did commit this act, then it is certainly a war crime,” Sifton said. “But more investigation is needed. What Commander Tokhi said was that his forces beheaded Taliban prisoners who had been taken into custody. This is unambiguously a violation of the Geneva Conventions and a serious violation of human rights law. If it occurred, then the commanders who allowed it to happen, who could have stopped it, will also be implicated in the criminality."
Sifton explained that in some circumstances, under international law, foreign military officials in the U.S.-led coalition could also be implicated: "The Afghan forces who work side by side with the Americans are often in the command and control structure of the coalition effort. In that respect, when they commit crimes, and commanding officers -- who are Americans or coalition partners -- are on the scene and don't stop them, or fail to stop them, or knew that they were going to commit crimes and didn't do anything to prevent them, that means that those commanders -- whether they are Americans or Afghans or Canadians or anything else -- are responsible for those crimes."
Sifton said that if an investigation determines that the beheadings did occur but U.S. troops were not present, the incident still would be such a serious violation of international law that it should be brought to the attention of officials at the highest levels in Washington.
"If these soldiers did commit the act -- if they were [indeed from the] Afghan National Army, that means they were trained by the international community," Sifton said. "Or, at least, supposedly trained. And that would raise serious concerns about the training and about the general effort to build a new Afghan National Army. If they were not Afghan National Army, but alternatively [were] Afghan militia forces [deployed together with the] United States military for use in their operations, that still raises serious concerns about Operation Enduring Freedom and the U.S. effort in Afghanistan."
U.S. military officials in Kandahar told RFE/RL that they have been concerned about the behavior of some Afghan militia fighters they have worked with. As a result, they say the U.S. military is trying to phase out its reliance on militia factions while increasing its cooperation with the Afghan National Army.