As the Northern Alliance and U.S. Marines conduct mop-up operations against the defeated Taliban, a nettlesome question of how to handle prisoners of war is rearing its head.
Ordinary Taliban Afghan militiamen are disarmed and sent home, or they switch sides - not unusual in Afghanistan's long and bloody history of tribal warfare.
But what to do with Islamic fanatics? - not only the Afghan mullahs who headed up the Taliban regime, but the foreigners (Saudis, Pakistanis, Egyptians and others) who came to Afghanistan to support Osama bin Laden, and who learn terrorism at al-Qaida training camps.
These are the elite, committed terrorists. It would be insane to release them. They'd be back in their deadly business in no time.
Although hard-core elements vowed to fight to the death, many have not kept their word. It's a shame, because wiping them out in battle removes the POW problem. Rules of war prohibit killing surrendering soldiers. Too bad. It's what they deserve.
So far, hundreds of foreign al-Qaida terrorists or their sympathizers have waved the white flag. The final number could reach into the thousands, perhaps including bin Laden himself.
The emerging regime in Afghanistan will deal with the hard-core Afghan elements, but submitting the foreign Muslim extremists to Afghan justice might be too much to ask of them.
One idea is to turn the POWs over to the United Nations for trial in the World Court. But the U.N. has neither the means nor the desire to tackle this ugly task.
Besides, al-Qaida kingpins should be tried by the United States. Their crimes were against America, not the U.N. This is where the military tribunals just approved by President Bush come in.
Military tribunals determine whether the accused have violated the rules of war - that makes them the ideal venue for trying terrorists. Also the trials can be conducted abroad and the guilty swiftly punished by death or incarceration, without undue legal or political hassles.
Civil rights extremists, led by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., are, of course, appalled that military people should conduct military trials. They would turn the terrorists' trials into another Johnny Cochran-Alan Dershowitz dog-and-pony show.
Moreover, federal courts can't keep up with what's on their dockets now, thanks in good part to Leahy's refusal to let the Senate vote on many of President Bush's judgeship nominees. Now the Judiciary chairman wants to burden the system with hundreds of terrorist trials? Unbelievable.
There should be no problem about what to do with the al-Qaida Arabs. Give them a fair trial in U.S. military courts - and then execute them.
It's a far better deal than they gave to the thousands of civilians who were slaughtered Sept. 11.