Afghanistan: If a White House Report on a Massacre isn’t Released, did the Massacre Happen? (Currier)

Cora Currier writes at ProPublica

Soon after taking office, President Obama pledged to open a new inquiry into the deaths of perhaps thousands of Taliban prisoners of war at the hands of U.S.-allied Afghan fighters in late 2001.

Last month, the White House told ProPublica it was still “looking into” the apparent massacre.

Now it says it has concluded its investigation – but won’t make it public.

The investigation found that no U.S. personnel were involved, said White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. Other than that, she said, there is “no plan to release anything.”

The silence leaves many unanswered questions about what may have been one of the worst war crimes since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, including why previous American investigations were shut down, and how evidence was destroyed in the case.   

“This is not a sufficient answer given the magnitude of what happened here,” said Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy for Physicians for Human Rights, the organization that originally uncovered mass graves where the prisoners were buried.

The long saga began in November 2001, when Taliban prisoners who had surrendered to Northern Alliance commander Abdul Rashid Dostum were transported in shipping containers without food or water. According to eyewitness accounts and forensic work by human rights investigators, hundreds of men died of suffocation while others were shot, and their bodies buried at the desert site of Dasht-i-Leili.

Dostum was working closely with U.S. troops at the time. Surviving prisoners alleged that Americans were present at the loading of the containers – but the Pentagon has said repeatedly that it had no evidence that U.S. forces participated or were even aware of the deaths. (Dostum has denied any personal involvement, and claims that roughly 200 men died in transit, from battlefield wounds.)

In the fall of 2002, the U.S., U.N., and even Dostum himself expressed support for an investigation. But none got underway. In the summer of 2009, prompted by a New York Times report that Bush administration officials had actively discouraged U.S. investigations, President Obama ordered a new review of the case.

Hayden, the White House spokeswoman, said the new investigation “was led by the intelligence community,” and found that no Americans – including CIA officers, who were also in the region – were involved.

She declined to answer the following lingering questions:

  • What was the scope of the investigation? Former Bush administration officials who had been involved in the initial U.S. response to Dasht-i-Leili told ProPublica that they had not been contacted for a new inquiry. Physicians for Human Rights said it received only tepid responses to its queries from the administration over the past several years.
  • Did the investigation cover the allegations, reported in the New York Times, that Bush administration officials had discouraged inquiries by the FBI and State Department?
  • Did the U.S. help with related inquires by the U.N. or the Afghan government? Even absent direct involvement of U.S. personnel, government documents make clear that the U.S. knew about the allegations early on. The U.S. was in an alliance with Dostum, and was the de facto power in the country after the invasion. An Afghan human rights official told ProPublica last month, “I haven’t seen any political or even rhetorical support of investigations into Dasht-i-Leili or any other investigation into past atrocities, from either Bush or Obama.”
  • Did the new investigation cover revelations that graves were disturbed and evidence removed as late as 2008? What, if anything, did the U.S. do to help protect the site over the years?

A parallel investigation began by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2010 also never made headway. The committee staffer leading that investigation was former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who is currently serving time in federal prison for revealing the name of an undercover officer to a reporter.

In letters from prison to ProPublica and an interview published recently in Salon, Kiriakou said that Secretary of State John Kerry, who was then chairman of the committee, personally called off the investigation. The State Department declined to comment, but a former Senate aide to Kerry called Kiriakou’s account “completely fabricated.”

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11 Responses

  1. This is why we need lots of Bradley Manning’s in every department of state and especially in the military. There will be many armed forces personnel alive right now who know exactly what happened but are afraid to speak out for fear of arrest and incarceration.

  2. The trouble with information of this kind is the way the law is framed. Committing war crimes is a duty, but reporting them is a felony. As long as this is the case men of courage like Manning, Assange, and Snowden will be few and far between.

  3. The number of dead/murdered at Dasht-i-Leili is most often estimated to be 3000.

    For those willing to consign these deaths to the dustbin of history, consider that the U.S. was in a position rather similar to that of Sharon during the massacre at Sabra-Shatila.

    There was CIA personnel present at the battle at the Qala-i-Jangi facility where several hundred of these prisoners were held immediately prior to be placed in the shipping containers (where John Walker Lindh was taken into custody and Johnny “Mike” Spann, (CIA) was killed, and melee ensued that was not only filmed but was received “close air support” from JSOC (on prisoners trapped in a secured courtyard of the facility — fish in a barrel).

    We have dragged our feet and allowed evidence to remain unsecured, degrading in the elements for the last 12 years.

    Whoever a tribunal might find responsible, this was a war crime.

    • The Sabra and Shatila massacres were investigated by the Kahane Commission and blame meted out to Ariel Sharon and others in command of the Israel Defense Forces.

      Consider that the number of those who died at Dasht-i-Leili approximates the deaths on 9/11 and is likely double, at least, the amount of deaths at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps – but likely 99% of the American public has never even heard of Dasht-i-Leili nor allegations of the massacre which occurred there.

      Unless there is a public hue and cry over this incident – there will be no reason why the U.S. will destabilize its relationship with General Dostum or his followers.

  4. Of course the CIA was involved despite Hayden’s attempt to fog this issue. CIA Agent Johnny Michael Spann was present during these operations. The surviving prisoners were unloaded from containers at the Mazari Sharif Fort. Spann was attempting to interrogate John Walker Lindh when several prisoners who had not been searched properly started firing weapons and Spann was killed. LIndh was trying to explain to Spann why he was fighting against General Dostum, one of the Afghan warlords from Uzbekistan.

  5. My memory is that Lindh was discovered, wounded, in the aftermath of the riot, a surprise. By accounts, the riot was triggered when one prisoner set off a hand grenade that he had managed to smuggle in, despite having been searched and disarmed along with the rest of the prisoners. Some prisoners then were able to access a poorly secured arsenal, but many remained unarmed and under fire from sentries on the compounds walls. They retreated into the bowels of the fort where attempts were made to literally flush them out by flooding …

    Frustratingly, Wikipedia has been edited, but I recall learning that there had been a similar massacre of prisoners by placing them in shipping containers in that region several years earlier during the civil war, a massacre by this method was not “unheard of” — I can’t find which side was massacred at that time, however, there was a history of victory massacres in that region between Taliban and regional warlords.

  6. 99.9% of the public is busy forgetting, if they ever knew, about such allegations. And the government is demonstrating even now what will happen to future truth-tellers.

    Gives a whole new meaning to “Yes We Can.”

  7. General Dostum is an ethnic Uzbek, who has been a major figure in Afghan government since the 1970s.

    Dostum had his big break when Ahmad Shah Massoud, Northern Alliance commander, was killed by al-Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists on September 9, 2001. Some point to this event as circumstantial proof of al-Qaeda’s invovment in 9/11 hijackings.

    There is little doubt that crimes against humanity occurred at Dasht-i-Leili – the question is who is culpable.

  8. This reminds me of a news article that I read over ten years ago. It was an obituary for a U.S. solider who had returned home from a tour of duty and then committed suicide. A family member (a sister, I think?) said that he had come home changed, suffered terrible nightmares, and had told her that he was haunted by having to bulldoze bodies into mass graves. She then made the curious remark that she didn’t believe what he said about mass graves because “we [the U.S.] wouldn’t do that.” At the time, I remember thinking, poor fellow. His own sister didn’t believe him. And I wondered why the sister had such complete faith in the integrity of the U.S. and so little faith in the word of her brother…

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