Bush's Afghan Massacre
Film Accuses U.S. of Atrocities at Dasht-i-Leiliby Ted Rall
NEW YORK--Did American soldiers commit war crimes during the invasion of Afghanistan?
According to eyewitnesses, U.S. Special Forces supervised--some say orchestrated--the systematic murder of more than 3,000 captured Taliban soldiers in November 2001. That charge is the centerpiece of a documentary film, "Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death," expected to be released in the United States within the next few weeks.
"There has been a cover-up by the Pentagon," says Scottish director Jamie Doran, a former producer for the BBC. "They're hiding behind a wall of secrecy, hoping this story will go away--but it won't."
Indeed, "Massacre" has already been shown on German television and to several European parliaments. The United Nations has promised an investigation. But thanks to a virtual media blackout, few Americans are aware that, on the eve of another war, their nation's reputation as a bastion of human rights is rapidly dissipating. American Involvement in Genocide?
The allegations stem from the uprising at Qala-i-Jhangi fortress, a dramatic event that marked the last major confrontation between U.S.-backed forces of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban government. Several hundred prisoners, including "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, revolted against their guards and seized a weapons cache. Responding to Special Forces soldiers working with the Northern Alliance, U.S. jets used bombs to kill most of the rebels, but not before CIA interrogator Johnny "Mike" Spann and an unknown number of Northern Alliance soldiers were shot to death.
Eighty-six Talibs, including Lindh, survived the Qala-i-Jhangi revolt. Meanwhile, 8,000 more soldiers surrendered at Kunduz, the last Taliban redoubt in northern Afghanistan. Commanders loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who later became Hamid Karzai's deputy defense minister, had painstakingly negotiated the surrender of the Taliban from Kunduz and Qala-i-Jhangi.
As I observed while covering the Kunduz front last fall, Northern Alliance commanders promised to quickly release ethnic Afghans among the Taliban once they laid down their arms. Many immediately joined the Northern Alliance. The status of foreign nationals, the so-called Arab Taliban, was somewhat nebulous since they didn't have hometowns in Afghanistan to which they might return after being released. In the end, Dostum guaranteed the lives of all 8,000-plus POWs. "Both British and American military officers were present" at the surrender deal, says Doran.
After five years holed up in the mountainous northeastern region bordering China and Kashmir, watching the Taliban capture 95 percent of Afghanistan, Dostum and other Northern Alliance warlords found themselves, after September 11, 2001, with a new best friend: the American taxpayer. Newsweek magazine reports that Special Forces commandos from the U.S. Fifth Group hooked up with Dostum in October 2001, offering hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, advanced weaponry and the use of the Air Force to strike the targets he indicated. Special Forces soldiers turned Dostum and his top commanders into America's proxy army; the Afghans didn't dare to disobey the source of that largess.
Although the Americans have been portrayed as tagging along with the Northern Alliance, Afghan forces followed their orders. U.S. troops were in de facto command of joint U.S.-Afghan operations, including Dostum's actions in the north.
Five thousand of the 8,000 prisoners made the trip to Sheberghan prison in the backs of open-air Soviet-era pick-up trucks. But Dostum's soldiers, furious about the Qala-i-Jhangi uprising and a Taliban ambush during the siege of Kunduz, were out for vengeance. 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." "I Didn't See Any Atrocities"
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.
When the containers were unlocked at Sheberghan, 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 and, according to witnesses, controlled the facility in the hopes of picking key prisoners for interrogation and possible transportation to Guantnamo Bay. (This is how Lindh was singled out.) "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.
Members of OPA 595, interviewed for the PBS program "Frontline" on August 2, 2002, confirm their presence at Sheberghan but cagily deny participating in war crimes. "The prisoners were being treated the exact same way as Dostum's forces were," said master sergeant "Paul." "I didn't see any atrocities, but I easily could have. Some prisoners may have died because they were sick or ill, and Dostum's forces just couldn't give them any care because they didn't have it."
But even General Dostum admits 200 such deaths. And the Northern Alliance soldier quoted above says U.S. troops masterminded the cover-up": "The Americans told the Sheberghan people to get rid of them [the bodies] before satellite pictures could be taken."
Ten minutes down the road from Sheberghan is the windswept scrub of Dasht-i-Leili. According to the Boston-based group Physicians for Human Rights, the 3,000 murdered Taliban POWs were brought to Dasht-i-Leili for mass burial. One witness tells The Guardian that a Special Forces vehicle was parked at the scene as bulldozers buried the dead. Despite a sloppy attempt to remove evidence after the fact, Doran's camera sweeps over clothing, bits of skull, matted hair, jaws, femurs, ribs jutting out of the sand. Bullet casings littering the site offer grim testimony that some Talibs were still alive before being dumped in the desert.
Since 1999 both sides in the Afghan civil war had killed their prisoners in similar gruesome fashion, particularly in and around the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. And no one is defending the Taliban as a regime. "I have three daughters and the Taliban disgusted me," says Doran. "But if we're a civilized society, then when men surrender then they have to be given basic protection...These men were murdered in a grotesque fashion, summarily executed and kicked into large holes in the ground with American soldiers standing by."
In recent months, Doran says, two witnesses who appear in his film have been brought to Sherberghan prison and executed by men loyal to Deputy Defense Minister Dostum.
The Pentagon refuses to investigate these charges.
Ted Rall is the author of "Gas War: The Truth Behind the American Occupation of Afghanistan," an analysis of the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline and the motivations behind the war on terrorism. Ordering information is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.