Obama orders review of alleged slayings of Taliban in Bush era
(CNN) — President Obama has ordered national security officials to look into allegations that the Bush administration resisted efforts to investigate a CIA-backed Afghan warlord over the killings of hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001.
“The indications that this had not been properly investigated just recently was brought to my attention,” Obama told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in an exclusive interview during the president’s visit to Ghana. The full interview will air 10 p.m. Monday.
“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 of the facts gathered up,” Obama said.
The inquiry stems from the deaths of at least 1,000 Taliban prisoners who had surrendered to the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance in late 2001.
The fighters were in the custody of troops led by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a prominent Afghan warlord who has served as chief of staff of the country’s post-Taliban army.
Dostum, a former communist union boss and militia leader who fought against the U.S.-backed mujahedeen in the 1980s, is known for switching sides as Afghanistan’s political conflict has evolved. When the United States invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, Dostum sided with the Americans and received military and CIA support to battle the Taliban.
The allegations against him first surfaced in a 2002 Newsweek report, which cited a confidential U.N. memo saying the prisoners died in cramped container trucks while being transported from their Konduz stronghold in northern Afghanistan to Sheberghan prison, west of Dostum’s stronghold at Mazar-e Sharif.
At the time, the Boston, Massachusetts-based group Physicians for Human Rights said it found a mass grave in nearby Dasht-e Leili, where witnesses said the bodies of Taliban prisoners were buried. The finding prompted U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Afghanistan, to support an investigation into the allegations.
But The New York Times, citing government officials and human rights organizations, reported Friday that the Bush administration “repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the episode.”
State Department officials recently have tried to derail Dostum’s reappointment as military chief of staff to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the newspaper reported, citing several senior officials who suggested the administration “might not be hostile to an inquiry.”
Dostum, a key ally of Karzai, was reportedly living in exile in Turkey until last month, when he was reinstated to his post as defense minister. He had left Afghanistan over allegations that he had kidnapped Akbar Bai, a former ally turned political rival.
When asked by CNN about whether Obama would support an investigation, the president replied, “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 laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that.”
Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, on Sunday praised Obama “for ordering his national security team to collect all the facts in the Dasht-e-Leili massacre and apparent U.S. cover-up.”
“U.S. military and intelligence personnel were operating jointly and accepted the surrender of the prisoners jointly with General Dostum’s forces in northern Afghanistan,” Sirkin said earlier in the week.
“The Obama administration has a legal obligation to determine what U.S. officials knew, where U.S. personnel were, what involvement they had, and the actions of US allies during and after the massacre. These questions, nearly eight years later, remain unanswered.”
The Afghan ship-container ‘massacre’
Allegations that hundreds or even thousands of surrendering pro-Taliban prisoners were killed in 2001 while in the custody of US-backed warlord Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum have returned to the headlines after first being reported in 2002.
US President Barack Obama has said he is looking into the alleged atrocity, amid recent reports that the administration of George W Bush resisted efforts to investigate it fully.
Accounts of the alleged massacre were carried by Newsweek and the the New York Times.
It is said to have happened as prisoners captured in a large-scale negotiated surrender were being transported in shipping containers from the town of Kunduz to Sheberghan prison, a stronghold of Gen Dostum west of Mazar-e-Sharif.
An in-depth Newsweek investigation, published in August 2002, quoted prisoners who said they had survived the ordeal, and men who drove the container trucks to the prison under the watch of Gen Dostum’s militiamen.
According to this investigation, up to 200 prisoners were packed into each shipping container, measuring a standard 40ft x 8ft x 8ft (12m x 2.5m x 2.5m).
Many of the prisoners shrieked as they were transferred to the containers, one driver reported. They may have been aware of the fate that allegedly awaited many of them, as this method of killing had allegedly been used before in Afghanistan – a country littered with rusting container trucks previously used to transport aid.
After some hours in the containers, the prisoners began to beat on the walls, saying they were dying and needed water.
According to Newsweek, some drivers acquiesced, punching holes into the containers to get air into them, and passing water through to the captives inside.
But they said Gen Dostum’s men punished those they saw doing this, and many of the prisoners’ pleas were ignored. In those containers, most, if not all, of the captives had died by the time they were opened at Sheberghan prison.
“They opened the doors and the dead bodies spilled out like fish,” one driver told Newsweek.
All in all, Newsweek reported, several convoys of container trucks arrived at the prison over about 10 days – many carrying cargoes of dead bodies.
It spoke to prisoners who said they had travelled in the convoy, who confirmed the drivers’ accounts.
One said they became so desperate with thirst that they began licking the sweat from each other’s bodies. Others say the captives began losing their reason and started biting each other.
But the prisoners’ deaths were not confined to suffocation and thirst, according to a witness quoted in January 2002 by the New York Times.
The witness, whom the newspaper described as “close to Gen Dostum’s inner circle”, said he had seen blood running from three or four bullet-ridden containers.
He claimed ethnic Hazara soldiers had carried out shootings, the report said, but soldiers at Qala Zeina, where the alleged shootings took place, said it had been Uzbek troops belonging to Gen Dostum.
Also in January 2002, the group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) reported its discovery of an apparent mass grave in Dasht-e-Leili desert, near Sheberghan prison.
Fifteen sets of remains were found and three autopsies conducted. But the group’s request for an investigation – along with similar requests from the Red Cross and the FBI – was never acted upon by the Bush administration, the New York Times recently reported.
The PHR now says it is still seeking answers about exactly what happens, and it laments that no full investigation has been carried out.
It says crucial evidence may have been lost, or may be in danger of being lost, as the mass grave appears to have been tampered with since its discovery.
According to the New York Times, a recently declassified state department report also suggests that several Afghan witnesses to the alleged atrocity have since been tortured or killed.
From BBC News