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Afghanistan: U.S. Treatment Of Afghans In Doubt After Alleged Beating Of 'Friendly' Prisoners

U.S. forces in Afghanistan stand accused of beating friendly Afghans during raids near Kandahar in January and holding them prisoner for 16 days. It appears that the wrong men were targeted because of bad intelligence provided by local Afghan leaders. But the case also raises deeper questions about the treatment of military prisoners, whether they are friendly or not.

Washington, 12 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military is facing difficult questions about reports that American servicemen beat friendly Afghanis during two raids on what were believed to be hideouts for Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces.

On the night of 23 January, U.S. forces stormed a police headquarters and a school in Kaz Uruzgan, near Kandahar. Nineteen people were killed in the incident, and 27 Afghans were taken prisoner. American officials said they believed the prisoners were Al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters.

The prisoners were released on 7 February after it was determined they were not hostile. Four of them have since told American news reporters they were beaten by their captors, even as they insisted that they were friendly forces.

Speaking yesterday at a Pentagon briefing, Defense Department spokesman Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem, said he would not comment on the incident pending an investigation. But he and other Pentagon officials have attributed the mistake to poor intelligence from rival Afghan factions.

The Kaz Uruzgan incident calls into question whether it is proper for American forces to beat even hostile captives.

At yesterday's briefing, Stufflebeem said confusion reigns during raids like the one at Kaz Uruzgan. He said it is impossible to determine who is hostile, and whether a detainee's insistence that he is friendly is not merely an effort to escape.

Jack Spencer, a defense and national security analyst with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, also gives American forces the benefit of the doubt. He told RFE/RL that with the intense news coverage of the war, it would be foolish for U.S. or other Western forces in Afghanistan to indiscriminately violate the rights of their captives.

"Knowing that the world is watching them, they take very seriously their responsibility to conduct their actions, or to behave in such a way, that nothing but the best intentions can be deducted [deduced] from their actions. I really do believe that," Spencer said.

Others agree up to a point. Edward Atkeson is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who now researches international security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He noted that only four of the 27 released prisoners say they were beaten. He said it is possible that the four may be motivated by a desire for the financial compensation that American forces have given to others who were injured, or whose relatives were killed, in misdirected U.S. attacks.

Still, Atkeson is not prepared to absolve the Americans involved in the Kaz Uruzgan raids while the matter remains under investigation. He told RFE/RL the U.S. military has a responsibility to show other armed forces how to conduct a war properly.

"We're a major power, we're a democracy, we aspire to [a] much higher order of civil affairs than most of these little rinky-dink countries do, and we've got to expect higher standards from our own soldiers. And I'm very disturbed about the reports, but you have to be a little skeptical of them," Atkeson said.

Both Spencer and Atkeson agreed, however, that the suspected beatings will have no effect on the treatment Americans can expect if any of their forces are captured by hostile troops in Afghanistan.

Spencer said he has no illusions that either Al-Qaeda or Taliban captors would treat U.S. prisoners humanely, regardless of the Kaz Uruzgan raids. And Atkeson noted that U.S. troops are prepared for mistreatment in prisoner-of-war camps because of their experience with communist captors during the Korean War, and with Japanese forces during World War II.

The question remains about whether the Kaz Uruzgan incident was the inadvertent result of the U.S. receiving bad intelligence. At yesterday's Pentagon briefing, Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said it should not be surprising that friendly forces could be targeted because of the conflicting political agendas of different regional leaders in Afghanistan.

"To say that this is a complex situation in which information may be good one day and bad the next day is an understatement. And people that were doing something [supporting one cause] three months ago were doing something else two months ago, and then it changed [again] last week," Clarke said.

Some analysts agree that reliable intelligence is difficult to acquire in Afghanistan, a country where military units have been known to shift allegiances frequently.

Spencer of the Heritage Foundation said it is impossible to be certain of the veracity of information provided by seemingly knowledgeable Afghan leaders in any given region: "We have had to -- from day one -- understand what might be the motives of anyone providing information in Afghanistan. And the reason for that is that these people, across the board, have many different political objectives. The second reason is it's very possible, if not extremely likely, that Taliban and Al-Qaeda have more than a few of their own operatives in and amongst friendly Afghan forces."

Atkeson agreed. He told RFE/RL: "We're dealing with tribal elements. There is no operable national authority working, you know, outside the capital city [Kabul], so that we have to be just extremely careful when somebody tips us off to something."

Atkeson said there cannot be reliable intelligence in Afghanistan until interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai or his successors establish firm central control over a country that is now largely lawless.