On Friday, in the New York Times, James Risen resuscitated a story that some commentators — myself included — presumed had dropped off the radar, never to be heard of again. The story concerns the massacre of at least 1,500 prisoners in northern Afghanistan at the end of November 2001, after the fall of the city of Kunduz, the Taliban’s last stronghold, and is known, to those who recall it, as the “Convoy of Death,” because those who died suffocated in vast numbers, or died as a result of gunshot wounds, while being transported in container trucks to a prison at Sheberghan run by General Rashid Dostum, a leader of the US-backed Northern Alliance.
In my book The Guantánamo Files, I devoted a chapter to the “Convoy of Death,” which includes the following passages, reproduced here to establish a context for the massacre, based on descriptions from survivors, and from those who covered the story at the time, or who investigated it afterwards:
On Sunday, November 25, 2001, as the uprising began in Qala-i-Janghi [a fortress in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where several hundred prisoners — mainly foreign Taliban recruits — died during another massacre, discussed in Chapter Two of The Guantánamo Files, and also here], a far larger group of Taliban soldiers — at least 4,500, but possibly as many as 7,000 — made their way from Kunduz to Yerghanek, five miles west of the city, where they surrendered to General Dostum. What no one either knew or cared about, however, was that among the surrendering soldiers were hundreds of civilians who had been caught up in the chaos or who were fleeing the hard-core al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters making a last stand in Kunduz itself.
Very few of those who made their way to Yerghanek — 70 at most — were eventually transferred to Guantánamo. Of these, only a handful have spoken about their experiences, and none were in the first convoys that set off for Sheberghan on the Sunday. Overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people flooding out of the city, Dostum was obliged to keep thousands of them marooned in the desert while they arranged additional transportation over the next few days. As a result, neither the men from Tipton [the so-called “Tipton Three — Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul — whose story was the focus of Michael Winterbottom’s film “The Road To Guantánamo”] nor the others who ended up in Guantánamo — including Abdul Rahman, a 25-year old shopkeeper from Kunduz, and Mohammed Saghir, a 49-year old woodcutter from Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province [whose stories, like those of the “Tipton Three,” are included in Chapter Three of The Guantánamo Files] — had any inkling of the grisly fate that awaited them.
While the vast crowds of fighters and civilians were disarmed, Dostum’s men recruited drivers to go to Qala Zeini, an old fort on the road between Mazar-e-Sharif and Sheberghan, where those transported from Yerghanek were transferred into containers for the last stage of the journey to Sheberghan. One of the drivers, who was in the fort when a convoy of prisoners arrived that evening, said that, as soon as the Northern Alliance soldiers began stripping them of their turbans and vests, tying their hands behind their backs and transferring them to the containers, some of the prisoners — those who were familiar with recent Afghan history — realized that Dostum was planning to kill them. Since 1997, when a brutal Uzbek general had first seen the viability of containers as cheap and convenient killing machines, murdering 1,250 Taliban soldiers by leaving them in containers in the summer sun, they had become a familiar weapon of Afghan warfare. When the Taliban took Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, they disposed of their conquered enemies in the same fashion.
According to one of the drivers, a few hours after the convoy had set off from Qala Zeini, the prisoners started pounding on the sides of the containers, shouting, “We’re dying. Give us water! We are human, not animals.” He said that he and other drivers punctured holes in the walls and passed through bottles of water, but added that those who were caught doing this were punished. Even these gestures, however, were not enough to prevent large numbers of the prisoners from suffocating as the convoy crawled towards Sheberghan. When the first trucks pulled up at the prison and the doors of the containers were opened, most were disturbingly silent. One of the drivers recalled, “They opened the doors and the dead bodies spilled out like fish.” […]
Several weeks passed before the first of the prisoners in Sheberghan [who were held in hideously overcrowded conditions] were transferred to American custody, but in the meantime, as news of the massacre began to seep out, human rights organizations again called for an investigation [after fruitless calls for an investigation of the Qala-i-Janghi massacre], focusing not only on the convoys, but also on claims that the dead and wounded had been buried in mass graves at Dasht-i-Leili, an expanse of waste land on the outskirts of Sheberghan. The graves were subjected to intense scrutiny over the next few months, as representatives of Physicians for Human Rights, and Bill Hegland, a pioneer in the field of “human rights archaeology,” investigated them. Both confirmed that a massacre had taken place, but, as with Qala-i-Janghi, no official inquiry took place. Newsweek reported that the UN confirmed that the findings were “sufficient to justify a fully-fledged criminal investigation,” but also noted that advisers warned against proceeding with the case, citing its “political sensitivity.”
It was left to film-maker Jamie Doran, in his documentary “Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death” [available below, via Google Video], to present a series of explosive claims, which remain unanswered. Doran, who concluded that up to 3,000 men were killed in the convoys, sought out eye-witnesses to explain what had happened. While no one claimed that the Americans had any prior knowledge of the massacre, an Afghan soldier said that, when confronted with the corpses of several hundred men, “The Americans told the Sheberghan people to get them outside the city before they were filmed by satellite.” He also visited Dasht-i-Leili with a driver who said that he was accompanied by 30-40 American soldiers when he brought wounded men to the site, who were then shot and buried.
As James Risen explained in the New York Times article on Saturday, “American officials had been reluctant to pursue an investigation,” which was “sought by officials from the FBI, the State Department, the Red Cross and human rights groups,” because Dostum “was on the payroll of the CIA and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in 2001.” He also reported that these officials added that, in the years after the massacre, the US was “worried about undermining the American-supported government of President Hamid Karzai, in which General Dostum had served as a defense official,” and explained how attempts to investigate the allegations had been rebuffed by a senior FBI official, and, in particular, by senior officials in the Defense Department, including, apparently, deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who, after “[s]omebody mentioned Dostum and the story about the containers and the possibility that this was a war crime,” said, “we are not going to be going after him for that.”
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.