The Times article focused on new revelations that despite requests by officials from the FBI, the State Department, the International Committee of the Red Cross and human rights groups for a formal investigation, Bush administration officials repeatedly impeded any inquiry because General Dostum worked closely with the CIA and US special forces.
On July 17, Gen. Dostum denounced the Times story -- along with an August 2002 Newsweek cover story on the massacre. Nevertheless, Dostum admitted that the Taliban prisoners had surrendered jointly to US forces and to his own Northern Alliance forces.
"Dostum makes a significant admission by confirming in his statement that Taliban prisoners surrendered jointly to US forces and to US-allied Afghan forces in November 2001 outside Konduz, Afghanistan," stated Nathaniel Raymond, Physicians for Human Rights’ lead researcher on the Dasht-e-Leili case.
"Furthermore," said Raymond, "Dostum’s blanket denial should be seen in the context of clear indications of evidence-tampering at the Dasht-e-Leili site where bodies are suspected to be buried, and the fact that at least four witnesses in this case have been tortured, killed or disappeared."
Nathaniel Raymond, PHR's lead researcher on the Dasht-e-Leili case, being interviewed for NPR's "Fresh Air" along with PHR Board Member Dr. Jennifer Leaning (Ben Greenberg/PHR)
Physicians for Human Rights discovered the alleged mass grave site at Dasht-e-Leili in January 2002. The group has been investigating possible war crimes ever since, combing through documents they received through the Freedom of Information Act, and pressing for a full, formal, and transparent investigation.
This 2002 photo by Physicians for Human Rights was published for the first time on the front page of The New York Times on July 11, 2009. That same day, President Obama ordered his national security team to collect all the facts about the Dasht-e-Leili massacre.
A former CIA case officer, Brian Glyn Williams, has summarized the events leading to and immediately following the November 2001 capture of the Taliban prisoners in his documentary film, "Dostum: An Afghanistan Warlord's War on Terror" (University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, 2004):
Dostum's troops began to move to the east, towards the last Taliban hold-outs, the city of Konduz. There, Dostum's forces eventually rounded up and surrounded and destroyed a major Taliban army, as well as its 055 Support Brigade.
In so doing, Dostum ended up capturing the largest single components of Arab al-Qaeda forces in the world, handing over hundreds of hardened al-Qaeda shock troops and terrorists to an American special forces team who accompanied him.
Most of these Arab terrorists were subsequently sent to Camp X-ray and Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Most of them were average rank-and-file Taliban, as well as hundreds of Pakistani volunteer jihadis who had flowed over to Afghanistan in October and November of 2001 to kill the Americans.
They were rounded up by Dostum and shipped to the west, towards two fortresses that were going to be converted into prisons. One fortress was to the South, Dostum's headquarters, the great castle of Qala-i-Jangi, Afghanistan's largest castle, which surrounds an area the size of three football fields. There, several hundred hardened al-Qaeda prisoners were imprisoned in the depths of Dostum's fortress, while other prisoners were sent to Dostum's headquarters at Sheberghan.
In the process, Dostum began to celebrate his victory over the Taliban with his CIA and remaining A-Team, the Special Forces comrades-in-arms. A visibly exuberant Dostum for once allowed himself to wallow in the adulation of his people as they thronged to give him a hero's welcome.
The New York Times editorial board has described the killing of the Taliban prisoners as a massacre:
According to survivors and witnesses, over a three-day period, fighters under the command of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum stuffed surrendering Taliban prisoners into metal shipping containers without food or water. Many suffocated. Guards shot others to death. The victims are believed to be buried in a grave in the desert of Dasht-i-Leili in northern Afghanistan.
Although the deaths were previously reported, The Times’s James Risen has now detailed repeated efforts by the Bush administration to discourage any investigation of the massacre — even after officials from the F.B.I. and the State Department, along with the Red Cross and human rights groups, tried to press the matter. Physicians for Human Rights, which discovered the mass grave in 2002, says the site has since been tampered with. Satellite photos seem to bear this out.
General Dostum, unfortunately, had far too many powerful friends looking out for him. He was on the C.I.A. payroll and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in the early days of the war.
Dr. Jennifer Leaning and former PHR staffer John Heffernan first reported the mass grave in January 2002. She’s a co-founding board member of PHR and a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
PHR investigator Jennifer Leaning at Sheberghan Prison, January 2002 (John Heffernan/PHR)
What It's Like to Discover a Mass Grave: Dr. Jennifer Leaning
Dr. Leaning described to Terry Gross the scene in the desert near Sheberghan Prison.
GROSS: Dr. Leaning, you and one of your colleagues found the mass grave. How did you know when you found it?
Dr. LEANING: It was –- it was remarkable. I have seen old massacre sites. I have seen some mass graves that are smaller, but we were riding in an old Toyota Land Cruiser, heading southwest out of Sheberghan towards Maymana, and as you take a road out of Sheberghan to enter the Dasht-e- Leili Desert, as I say, within a matter of a few hundred yards, we suddenly saw this dry desert expanse, and it’s really desert. This is January. There wasn’t snow on the ground, but it was dry, cold, hard- packed desert. It was 40 degrees with the wind. And we saw fresh, moist sand and deep tracks of major vehicles, of what looked like bulldozers and also huge trucks -- bulldozers meaning there were real treads on it. And there were these vast areas of disturbed sand and earth, moist and darker in the light compared to the hard, firm, undisturbed surface of the Dasht-e-Leili on both sides of this dirt road that we were on, and we got out.
And we were careful because we were within a line of sight of General Dostum’s military post up there, one of his headquarter posts, which is very near Sheberghan and the prison. And since everything is so flat, it was possible from the third floor of this outpost where he – where his troops were, at least, for him actually to see what we were doing - for his forces to see. And we had figured that out...
GROSS: Meaning you weren’t necessarily safe being there.
Dr. LEANING: No, and...
GROSS: Because he might have been behind the mass grave. That’s a possibility. His men might have been behind it, so...?
Dr. LEANING: Possible, yes, because he was...
GROSS: He might not have wanted you sniffing around there.
Dr. LEANING: No. He was in military control of this part of Mazar and the area going north and east, where Sheberghan was. He was in control of this whole area, and of the Sheberghan Prison. It was his people that were wardens in the prison.
And so we got out of the Land Rover, and we stayed on the road because of the Land Cruiser, because we were afraid that some parts of this might have been mined, which is often the case around mass graves. And yet, as we walked a little bit hesitantly into the disturbed earth, it became evident that, virtually as far as the eye could see on both sides of this road but particularly on the right-hand side as we were heading southeast out of Sheberghan, that there were black turbans tangled in the dirt, that there were prayer beads, isolated sandals and flip-flops, other little garments that I didn’t stoop down to investigate because some of them would have involved walking 20 yards into this disturbed area, and exposed human bones.
I mean, I’m a physician. There were pieces of rib cage. There were bones that looked as if they were parts of femurs.
And it appeared as if some of the surface of this grave had been already defaced by animals who had come to dig and then, smelling things, had explored deeper so that the - as I say, it was an area of disturbed earth with surface remnants of human remains and human clothing that extended on both sides for a very large area.
And we saw three or four military vehicles at Dostum’s outpost begin to fill with troops, with these men with uniform that we could see from a far distance, and begin to turn out of that compound and head down the road towards where we were. And so we quickly got back into our Land Cruiser, did a U-turn and went very fast. Before they got onto the road to the Dasht-e-Leili, we got back and went into Sheberghan town.
In response to The Times's revelations about the Bush administration cover-up, President Obama has ordered his national security team to collect all the facts about the killings of up to 2,000 Afghan prisoners of war suffocated in container trucks in 2001.
This response is a welcome turn-around from Bush-era policies that allowed war crimes to occur and be covered up. But as the initial fact-finding proceeds, President Obama will face enormous pressure – including from within his own administration -- to "look forward" rather than allow a full, clear-eyed, and transparent investigation into what happened at the mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili.
Physicians for Human Rights is urging the Obama Administration to conduct the thorough investigation that is necessary to help Afghanistan return to the rule of law and restore America’s reputation as a world leader that respects the Geneva Conventions.
To learn more and take action, visit AfghanMassGrave.org.
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