Secretary of State Colin Powell has added his voice to the chorus: It is in the best interests of the United States, he says, to initially treat combatants captured in Afghanistan as prisoners of war. This is the view of other realists in the Pentagon and administration, some US allies, and the vast majority of international law and human rights groups.
But the question goes far beyond the treatment of individual detainees. Rather, it sets the stage for how, in a violent world, the rules of war are established for everyone. For almost 100 years, the Geneva and Hague Conventions have provided a framework that protects combatants. The United States has always argued for a broad reading of these conventions regarding POWs, both to set an example and to ensure fair treatment of its own soldiers when captured.
Regarding the detainees at the American naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, the US is currently violating its own Army regulations as well as the Geneva Convention, namely in the way the prisoners are housed (in open-air cages with roofs).
US Army rules reflect the convention and require that all persons taken into custody by US forces during a conflict be treated as prisoners of war, "until some other status is determined by a competent tribunal." This means that all combatants - Taliban, Al Qaeda, and others - captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan must be treated at first as POWs until their status can be decided by a competent tribunal.
These fighters won't necessarily receive POW status. Some people have argued that Al Qaeda fighters may not qualify as POWs if they did not wear distinctive marks identifying them or obey the laws of war; others have argued similarly about the Taliban. But the facts are not established, which is why US Army regulations require a "competent tribunal" to judge each individual case fairly. …