THE HAGUE - International Criminal Court appeals judges ruled Thursday that an investigation into allegations of war crimes by United States military and intelligence personnel, Afghan forces and the Taliban in Afghanistan should go ahead. The case has triggered a diplomatic backlash from Washington.

International war crimes judges ruled Thursday that a probe into abuses in Afghanistan must go ahead, including looking into possible atrocities committed by US forces, as they overturned a previous ruling.

“The prosecutor is authorised to commence an investigation into alleged crimes committed on the territory of Afghanistan since May 1, 2003,” International Criminal Court judge Piotr Hofmanski said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the court’s decision as a “truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable political institution, masquerading as a legal body.”

“It is all the more reckless for this ruling to come just days after the United States signed a historic peace deal on Afghanistan — the best chance for peace in a generation,” Pompeo said in a statement while referring to an agreement signed between the US and the Taliban in the Gulf nation of Qatar on Saturday.

The International Criminal Court last year rejected a demand by its chief prosecutor to look into crimes committed in the war-torn nation -- an investigation also bitterly opposed by Washington. In 2006, the ICC’s prosecutors opened a preliminary probe into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in the central Asian nation since 2003.

In 2017, chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked judges to allow a full-blown probe, not only into Taliban and Afghan government personnel but also international forces, US troops and members of the Central Intelligence Agency. But pre-trial judges said it “would not serve the interests of justice” and that the court should focus on cases with a better chance of success. While US officials hailed the decision, human rights groups said it was a blow to thousands of the victims -- and ICC prosecutors appealed.

 

Washington argues that it has its own procedures in place to deal with US troops who engage in misconduct. Afghanistan also opposes the inquiry, saying the country itself had “responsibility to bring justice for our nation and for our people”.

 

The US is not a member of the Hague-based court. Judge Hofmanski noted that Bensouda’s preliminary examination found reasonable grounds to believe war crimes had been committed in Afghanistan, which is a member of the court, and that the court has jurisdiction.

 

Washington rejects the Hague-based court’s jurisdiction, and last year, US President Donald Trump’s administration imposed travel restrictions and other sanctions on ICC employees.

 

The ICC’s ruling comes days after Taliban militants killed at least 20 Afghan soldiers and policemen in a string of overnight attacks, throwing the country’s nascent peace process into grave doubt.

Under the terms of a recent US-Taliban agreement, foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months, subject to Taliban security guarantees and a pledge by the insurgents to hold talks with Kabul.

 

The deal, signed in the Qatari capital Doha, will see the withdrawal of thousands of US troops from the country in return for a guarantee from Taliban that Afghan soil will not be used for attacks on US interests

 

The violence has cast a pall on the nascent Afghan peace process, with the Taliban demanding that President Ashraf Ghani government should release nearly 5,000 prisoners agreed as part of the deal.

Ghani’s refusal to release the prisoners has angered the Taliban, and likely put the so-called intra-Afghan talks slated for March 10 in jeopardy.

 

Speaking at a news conference at the US Department of State on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said all sides should stop posturing and prepare for the intra-Afghan negotiations, including practical discussions about prisoner releases.

 

“We know that the road ahead will be difficult. We expected it, we were right,” Pompeo said. “The upsurge in violence in parts of Afghanistan over the last couple of days is unacceptable. In no uncertain terms, violence must be reduced immediately for the peace process to move forward.”

 

The ICC, which began operations in The Hague in 2002, is a court of last resort for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity when committed by nationals of a signatory state, or if they took place on the territory of one of its member states.

 

Human rights groups on Thursday hailed the decision to uphold the prosecution’s appeal. “The decision also sends a much-needed signal to current and would-be perpetrators of atrocities that justice may one day catch up to them,” Human Rights Watch’s Param-Preet Singh said.

 

A US-led force invaded Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, targeting Al-Qaeda in the sanctuaries provided by the Taliban government. Fighting has continued ever since -- last year more than 3,400 civilians were killed and almost 7,000 injured, according to data provided by UN agencies.