Monday, 20 July 2009

3,000 afghans murdered as us troops stood by


By Ted Rall Ted Rall Wed Jul 15, 5:58 pm ET

Were 3,000 Afghans Murdered As U.S. Troops Stood By?

NEW YORK—« I’ve asked my national security team to...collect the facts, » President Obama told CNN. Then, he said, « we’ll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all the facts together. »
Such was Obama’s tepid reaction to a New York Times cover story about an alleged « mass killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war by the forces of an American-backed warlord during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. »
Obama sounds so reasonable. Doesn’t he always? But his reaction to the massacre in the Dasht-i-Leili desert is nothing more than the latest case of his administration refusing to investigate a Bush-era war crime.
There are two things Obama doesn’t want you to know about Dasht-i-Leili. First, the political class and U.S. state-controlled media have sat on this story for six to seven years. Second, U.S. troops are accused of participating in the atrocities, which involved 12 times as many murders as My Lai.
The last major battle for northern Afghanistan took place in the city of Kunduz. After a weeks-long siege marked by treachery—at one point, the Taliban pretended to surrender, then turned their weapons on advancing Northern Alliance solders—at least 8,000 Taliban POWs fell under the control of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord with a long record of exceptional brutality.
I described what happened next in my column dated January 28, 2003:
« Five thousand of the 8,000 prisoners made the trip to Sheberghan prison in the backs of open-air Soviet-era pick-up trucks...They stopped and commandeered private container trucks to transport the other 3,000 prisoners. ‘It was awful,’ Irfan Azgar Ali, a survivor of the trip, told England’s Guardian newspaper. ‘They crammed us into sealed shipping containers. We had no water for 20 hours. We banged on the side of the container. There was no air and it was very hot. There were 300 of us in my container. By the time we arrived in Sheberghan, only ten of us were alive.’
« One Afghan trucker, forced to drive one such container, says that the prisoners began to beg for air. Northern Alliance commanders ‘told us to stop the trucks, and we came down. After that, they shot into the containers [to make air holes]. Blood came pouring out. They were screaming inside.’ Another driver in the convoy estimates that an average of 150 to 160 people died in each container. »
According to Scottish filmmaker Jamie Doran, the butchery continued for three days.
Doran’s documentary about these events, « Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, » was shown in 50 countries but couldn’t get a U.S. release by a media wallowing in the amped-up pseudo-patriotism that marked 2002. Doran’s film broke the story. (You can watch it online at My column brought it to a mainstream American audience:
« When the containers were unlocked at Sheberghan, » I wrote in 2003, « the bodies of the dead tumbled out. A 12-man U.S. Fifth Special Forces Group unit, Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595, guarded the prison’s front gates...’ Everything was under the control of the American commanders,’ a Northern Alliance soldier tells Doran in the film. American troops searched the bodies for Al Qaeda identification cards. But, says another driver, ‘Some of [the prisoners] were alive. They were shot’ while ‘maybe 30 or 40’ American soldiers watched. »
The Northern Alliance witness told Doran that American commanders advised him to « get rid of them [the bodies] before satellite pictures could be taken. » Indeed, satellite photos reveal that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government dispatched bulldozers to the mass grave site in 2006 and removed most of the bodies.
World’s Most Dangerous Places writer Robert Young Pelton, a colleague who (like me) was in and around Kunduz in November 2001, denies that Dostum’s men or U.S. Special Forces killed more than a few hundred Taliban prisoners. However, the U.S. government started receiving firsthand accounts of the events at Dasht-i-Leili in early 2002. According to the Times « Dell Spry, the FBI’s senior representative at...Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, heard accounts of the deaths from agents he supervised there. Separately, 10 or so prisoners brought from Afghanistan reported that they had been ‘stacked like cordwood’ in shipping containers and had to lick the perspiration off one another to survive, Mr. Spry recalled. »
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July 18, 2009

Afghan Warlord Denies Links to ’01 Killings


KABUL — Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful Afghan warlord who fought the Taliban and was supported by the American government after the invasion of Afghanistan, said in an online column published Friday that it was “unimaginable” that forces allied with him could have killed Taliban prisoners in 2001 “to the extent that has been claimed.”
General Dostum, recently reinstated to a senior position in the Afghan government and an important political ally of President Hamid Karzai, was responding to an article published in The New York Times on July 11.
The article reported that Bush administration officials repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the killings of hundreds or even thousands of Taliban prisoners of war by forces allied with General Dostum when his organization was part of the American-backed Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban.
In a column on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Web site, General Dostum wrote that the Northern Alliance had investigated and determined that there was no “intentional massacre” of prisoners of war.
“I had given very clear orders for all of our troops in the Northern United Front to treat prisoners well,” General Dostum wrote. He added: “The massacre of prisoners of war to the extent that has been claimed is against the principles of intelligence gathering and security. From a military point of view, it is unimaginable.”
The column drew sharp criticism from human rights groups who have investigated the mass deaths. Physicians for Human Rights, the Boston group that in 2002 discovered the site of the mass grave where the prisoners’ bodies were said to have been buried, accused General Dostum of trying to distract from the “substantial documentation” of the mass deaths.
The group described “clear indications of evidence tampering” at the mass grave site and said that at least four witnesses had been killed, tortured, or had disappeared. The group called for a full investigation into both the mass deaths and evidence the Bush administration squelched efforts to investigate the episode.
The Times article emphasized that accounts of the killings had been previously reported. The mass deaths occurred in November 2001, after thousands of Taliban fighters surrendered to General Dostum’s forces in Kunduz and were transported to a prison run by his forces near Shibarghan.
Survivors and witnesses later told The Times and Newsweek that prisoners were stuffed into closed metal shipping containers and suffocated, or were killed when guards shot into the containers.
The focus of The Times article was new revelations that even though officials from the F.B.I., the State Department, the Red Cross and human rights groups sought an investigation, Bush administration officials discouraged the inquiry because General Dostum worked closely with the C.I.A. and American Special Operations forces and was a member of Mr. Karzai’s American-backed government.
After The Times article was published, President Obama told CNN that “the indications that this had not been properly investigated just recently was brought to my attention.” Mr. Obama also said he had asked his national security team to “collect the facts for me that are known, and we’ll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all of the facts gathered up.”
The Times had sought comment from General Dostum through a spokesman for his party in Afghanistan, but the spokesman declined to comment on the mass deaths, and instead recommended trying to reach the general through an intermediary. Unable to reach General Dostum, The Times cited his prior statements that any deaths were unintentional and that only 200 prisoners had died, mostly from combat wounds and disease.
Officials at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is financed by Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors, said that General Dostum’s column was sent to them and other news outlets unsolicited, and that they translated it from Dari into English. The organization decided to solicit a rebuttal to run alongside the column, which ended up “more or less refuting it,” said Jay Tolson, the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty newsroom director in Prague.
“Dostum’s version, while highly questionable to say the least, was interesting, but we didn’t want to run it without a very informed counterpoint by somebody who was on the scene,” Mr. Tolson said.
The rebuttal published on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Web site stated that the “facts currently available indicate very strongly that many detainees — possibly hundreds — died while in the custody of Dostum’s forces in November 2001 and their bodies were dumped in the nearby desert of Dasht-i-Leili.” It was written by Sam Zarifi, a human rights investigator in northwestern Afghanistan in 2002 who is now the Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International.

July 11, 2009

U.S. Inaction Seen After Taliban P.O.W.’s Died


WASHINGTON — After a mass killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war by the forces of an American-backed warlord during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Bush administration officials repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the episode, according to government officials and human rights organizations.
American officials had been reluctant to pursue an investigation — sought by officials from the F.B.I., the State Department, the Red Cross and human rights groups — because the warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, was on the payroll of the C.I.A. and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in 2001, several officials said. They said the United States also worried about undermining the American-supported government of President Hamid Karzai, in which General Dostum had served as a defense official.
“At the White House, nobody said no to an investigation, but nobody ever said yes, either,” said Pierre Prosper, the former American ambassador for war crimes issues. “The first reaction of everybody there was, ‘Oh, this is a sensitive issue; this is a touchy issue politically.’ ”
It is not clear how — or if — the Obama administration will address the issue. But in recent weeks, State Department officials have quietly tried to thwart General Dostum’s reappointment as military chief of staff to the president, according to several senior officials, and suggested that the administration might not be hostile to an inquiry.
The question of culpability for the prisoner deaths — which may have been the most significant mass killing in Afghanistan after the 2001 American-led invasion — has taken on new urgency since the general, an important ally of Mr. Karzai, was reinstated to his government post last month. He had been suspended last year and living in exile in Turkey after he was accused of threatening a political rival at gunpoint.
“If you bring Dostum back, it will impact the progress of democracy and the trust people have in the government,” Mr. Prosper said. Arguing that the Obama administration should investigate the 2001 killings, he added, “There is always a time and place for justice.”
While President Obama has deepened the United States’ commitment to Afghanistan, sending 21,000 more American troops there to combat the growing Taliban insurgency, his administration has also tried to distance itself from Mr. Karzai, whose government is deeply unpopular and widely viewed as corrupt.
A senior State Department official said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, had told Mr. Karzai of their objections to reinstating General Dostum. The American officials have also pressed his sponsors in Turkey to delay his return to Afghanistan while talks continue with Mr. Karzai over the general’s role, said an official briefed on the matter. Asked about looking into the prisoner deaths, the official said, “We believe that anyone suspected of war crimes should be thoroughly investigated.”
The Back Story
While the deaths have been previously reported, the back story of the frustrated efforts to investigate them has not been fully told. The killings occurred in late November 2001, just days after the American-led invasion forced the ouster of the Taliban government in Kabul. Thousands of Taliban fighters surrendered to General Dostum’s forces, which were part of the American-backed Northern Alliance, in the city of Kunduz. They were then transported to a prison run by the general’s forces near the town of Shibarghan.
Survivors and witnesses told The New York Times and Newsweek in 2002 that over a three-day period, Taliban prisoners were stuffed into closed metal shipping containers and given no food or water; many suffocated while being trucked to the prison. Other prisoners were killed when guards shot into the containers. The bodies were said to have been buried in a mass grave in Dasht-i-Leili, a stretch of desert just outside Shibarghan.
A recently declassified 2002 State Department intelligence report states that one source, whose identity is redacted, concluded that about 1,500 Taliban prisoners died. Estimates from other witnesses or human rights groups range from several hundred to several thousand. The report also says that several Afghan witnesses were later tortured or killed.
In Afghanistan, rival warlords have had a history of eliminating enemy troops by suffocating them in sealed containers. General Dostum, however, has said previously that any such deaths of the Taliban prisoners were unintentional. He has said that only 200 prisoners died and blamed combat wounds and disease for most of the fatalities. The general could not be reached for comment, and a spokesman declined to comment for this article.
While a dozen or so bodies were examined and several were autopsied, a full exhumation was never performed, and human rights groups are concerned that evidence has been destroyed. In 2008, a medical forensics team working with the United Nations discovered excavations that suggested the mass grave had been moved. Satellite photos obtained by The Times show that the site was disturbed even earlier, in 2006.
“Our repeated efforts to protect witnesses, secure evidence and get a full investigation have been met by the U.S. and its allies with buck-passing, delays and obstruction,” said Nathaniel Raymond, a researcher for Physicians for Human Rights, a group based in Boston that discovered the mass grave site in 2002.
Seeking an Investigation
The first calls for an investigation came from his group and the International Committee of the Red Cross. A military commander in the United States-led coalition rejected a request by a Red Cross official for an inquiry in late 2001, according to the official, who, in keeping with his organization’s policy, would speak only on condition of anonymity and declined to identify the commander.
A few months later, Dell Spry, the F.B.I.’s senior representative at the detainee prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, heard accounts of the deaths from agents he supervised there. Separately, 10 or so prisoners brought from Afghanistan reported that they had been “stacked like cordwood” in shipping containers and had to lick the perspiration off one another to survive, Mr. Spry recalled. They told similar accounts of suffocations and shootings, he said. A declassified F.B.I. report, dated January 2003, confirms that the detainees provided such accounts.
Mr. Spry, who is now an F.B.I. consultant, said he did not believe the stories because he knew that Al Qaeda trained members to fabricate tales about mistreatment. Still, the veteran agent said he thought the agency should investigate the reports “so they could be debunked.”
But a senior official at F.B.I. headquarters, whom Mr. Spry declined to identify, told him to drop the matter, saying it was not part of his mission and it would be up to the American military to investigate.
“I was disappointed because I believed that, true or untrue, we had to be in front of this story, because someday it may turn out to be a problem,” Mr. Spry said.
The Pentagon, however, showed little interest in the matter. In 2002, Physicians for Human Rights asked Defense Department officials to open an investigation and provide security for its forensics team to conduct a more thorough examination of the gravesite. “We met with blanket denials from the Pentagon,” recalls Jennifer Leaning, a board member with the group. “They said nothing happened.”
Pentagon spokesmen have said that the United States Central Command conducted an “informal inquiry,” asking Special Forces personnel members who worked with General Dostum if they knew of a mass killing by his forces. When they said they did not, the inquiry went no further.
“I did get the sense that there was little appetite for this matter within parts of D.O.D.,” said Marshall Billingslea, former acting assistant defense secretary for special operations, referring to the Department of Defense.
High-Level Conversation
Another former defense official, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, recalled that the prisoner deaths came up in a conversation with Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense at the time, in early 2003.
“Somebody mentioned Dostum and the story about the containers and the possibility that this was a war crime,” the official said. “And Wolfowitz said we are not going to be going after him for that.”
In an interview, Mr. Wolfowitz said he did not recall the conversation. However, Pentagon documents obtained by Physicians for Human Rights through a Freedom of Information Act request confirm that the issue was debated by Mr. Wolfowitz and other officials.
As evidence mounted about the deaths, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell assigned Mr. Prosper, the United States ambassador at large for war crimes, to look into them in 2002. He met with General Dostum, who denied the allegations, Mr. Prosper recalled. Meanwhile, Karzai government officials told him that they opposed any investigation.
“They made it clear that this was going to cause a problem,” said Mr. Prosper, who left the Bush administration in 2005 and is now a lawyer in Los Angeles. “They would say, ‘We have had decades of war crimes. Where do you start?’ ”
In Washington, Mr. Prosper encountered similar attitudes. In 2002, Zalmay M. Khalilzad, then the White House coordinator for Afghanistan, made it clear that he was concerned about efforts to investigate General Dostum, Mr. Prosper said. “Khalilzad never opposed an investigation,” Mr. Prosper recalled. “But he definitely raised the political implications of it.”
Mr. Khalilzad, who later served as the American ambassador to Afghanistan, did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Prosper said that because of the resistance from American and Afghan officials, his office dropped its inquiry. The State Department mentioned the episode in its annual human rights report for 2002, but took no further action.

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