International war crimes judges will rule on Thursday whether a probe into wartime abuses in Afghanistan will go ahead, including possible atrocities committed by US forces.
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.
The court’s judges in The Hague are now set to decide on an appeal by prosecutors against the initial decision.
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.
Should Bensouda lose, she is allowed to ask again for an investigation if “new facts or evidence regarding the same situation” emerge, according to the ICC’s statute.
Bensouda’s move also unleashed a backlash from Washington, which in April last year revoked the Gambian-born chief prosecutor’s visa as part of broader restrictions on ICC staff probing American or allied personnel.
Former national security advisor John Bolton warned in 2018 that the US would arrest ICC judges if the court pursued an Afghan probe.
The US has never joined the ICC and does not recognise its authority over American citizens, saying it poses a threat to national sovereignty.
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 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.
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.