The most telling anecdote was provided by Dell Spry, formerly the FBI’s senior representative at Guantánamo, who “heard accounts of the deaths from agents he supervised there.” As Risen described it, “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,” and “told similar accounts of suffocations and shootings.” Spry said that he “did not believe the stories because he knew that al-Qaeda trained members to fabricate tales about mistreatment” (a bold statement that should not be taken at face value), but explained that he was “disappointed” when he was told not to investigate the allegations, “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.”
Whether or not that day has finally arrived is unclear. Risen reported that, recently, “State Department officials have quietly tried to thwart General Dostum’s reappointment as military chief of staff to the president [Karzai], according to several senior officials, and suggested that the administration might not be hostile to an inquiry.” He added, that “[t]he question of culpability for the prisoner deaths … 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.”
Risen also noted that a senior State Department official said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, “had told Mr. Karzai of their objections to reinstating General Dostum,” and had “pressed his sponsors in Turkey to delay his return to Afghanistan while talks continue with Mr. Karzai over the general’s role.” When the official was asked about investigating the massacre, he said, “We believe that anyone suspected of war crimes should be thoroughly investigated.”
In the immediate aftermath of Risen’s story, the Associated Press reported that the Pentagon had ruled out renewed calls for an investigation. Marine Corps Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said, “There is no indication that US military forces were there, or involved, or had any knowledge of this. So there was not a full investigation conducted because there was no evidence that there was anything from a DoD perspective to investigate.”
However, at the weekend, in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper in Ghana, Barack Obama indicated that he would support an investigation into the massacre. The exchange was as follows:
Anderson Cooper: And now it seems clear that the Bush Administration resisted efforts to pursue investigations of an Afghan warlord named General Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll. It’s now come out, there were hundreds of Taliban prisoners under his care who got killed. Some were suffocated in a steel container [actually, numerous containers], others were shot, possibly buried in mass graves. Would you support — would you call for — an investigation into possible war crimes in Afghanistan?
President Obama: Yes, the indications that this had not been properly investigated just recently was brought to my attention. So what I’ve asked my national security team to do is 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 the facts gathered up.
Anderson Cooper: But you wouldn’t resist categorically an investigation?
President Obama: I think that, you know, there are responsibilities that all nations have even in war. And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that.
This was encouraging, but as my research into the “Convoy of Death,” the Dasht-i-Leili massacre and conditions in Sheberghan prison indicated, the story does not end with the massacre. As mentioned above, no more than 70 of the many thousands of prisoners held at Sheberghan ended up in Guantánamo — with the others either released through negotiations with Pakistan or other countries, or, again, “disappeared” under dubious circumstances — but although the prison was run by General Dostum, serious questions remain unanswered about the involvement of US forces in the brutal treatment and possible disappearances of prisoners held at Sheberghan, beyond those who ended up being transferred to Guantánamo, as the following passage from The Guantánamo Files makes clear:
[In “Afghan Massacre,” Jamie Doran] spoke to other witnesses who said that Americans were responsible for murders and disappearances at the prison. An Alliance soldier told him that a US soldier murdered a Taliban prisoner in order to frighten the others into talking, and explained, “The Americans did whatever they wanted; we had no power to stop them. Everything was under the control of the American commander,” and an Alliance general said he saw US soldiers stabbing prisoners in the leg and cutting their tongues. “Sometimes, it looked as if they were doing it for pleasure. They would take a prisoner outside, beat him up and return him to the jail,” he said. “But sometimes, they were never returned and they disappeared.”
As I stated in The Guantánamo Files, “While these were grave allegations, the Americans’ conduct over the months and years to come would do nothing to dispel fears that torture, murder and disappearances had become acceptable tools in the ‘War on Terror,’” and I maintain that an investigation into US complicity in war crimes in Afghanistan should focus not just on the Dasht-i-Leili massacre (and the other massacre in Qala-i-Janghi), but also on US complicity in the torture and disappearances of those who survived the “Convoy of Death,” but were treated with appalling brutality in Sheberghan prison.
Note: For further information about the massacre, see Physicians for Human Rights’ Afghan Mass Grave site, and for other stories from survivors who were transferred to Guantánamo, see The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras (7) – From Sheberghan to Kandahar.