Revolution #173, August 16, 2009

U.S. Hand Behind 2001 Massacre in Afghanistan:

Mass Murder in the Sands of Dasht-i-Leili

In November 2001, a massacre of at least 2,000 Taliban prisoners took place in Afghanistan, where many of them were buried in the Dasht-i-Leili desert. But only now, nearly eight years later, is a fuller picture emerging of how top Bush administration officials repeatedly thwarted efforts to investigate what happened, including, and in particular, what may have been the U.S. military’s role in the mass killing.

A July 11 front-page New York Times article, written by investigative reporter James Risen, brings out how Bush officials frustrated calls for an investigation into this incident. Risen says this was principally because the Afghan warlord whose forces carried out the massacre, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, “was on the payroll of the CIA and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in 2001.” Risen, however, chooses not to follow where this important information could well lead, as we shall see.

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On the heels of 9/11 and the beginning of the “war on terror,” the U.S., in November 2001, spearheaded an invasion of Afghanistan which, in league with Afghan tribal warlords, brought about the fall of the Taliban government. In late November, thousands of Taliban surrendered to Dostum’s forces in the northern city of Kunduz. The prisoners were then packed into 30 metal shipping containers that were placed on lorries to be driven to a prison near the town of Sheberghan.

Survivors and eyewitnesses told the Times and Newsweek magazine in 2002 that over the three-day trip, the prisoners were given no food or water. Many suffocated to death, while others were killed when guards shot into the containers.

Ahmed Rashid, a mainstream Pakistani journalist and best-selling author who regularly appears on CNN and the BBC and writes for the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, has detailed this U.S. massacre. In his book, Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, Rashid describes how only “a handful of people in each of the thirty containers survived the journey—in one container only 6 out of 220 survived, according to UN officials.” (p. 93) Rashid also recounts how, when the trucks reached Sheberghan, the dead were quickly taken into the desert and buried in huge pits dug by a bulldozer—in a clear effort to bury the evidence.

In his Times article, Risen reports that, in early 2002, Dell Spry, the FBI’s senior representative at the detainee prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “heard accounts of the deaths from agents he supervised there. 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, Mr. Spry recalled. They told similar accounts of suffocations and shootings, he said. A declassified F.B.I. report, dated January 2003, confirms that the detainees provided such accounts.”

Spry sent the information up his chain of command, but a senior FBI officer told him to drop the matter because, Risen writes, “it would be up to the American military to investigate.” But the military showed no interest in the matter. Pentagon spokesmen, according to Risen, “have said that the United States Central Command conducted an ‘informal inquiry,’ asking Special Forces personnel members who worked with General Dostum if they knew of a mass killing by his forces. When they said they did not, the inquiry went no further.”

What’s Missing from Risen’s Article

However, what Risen does not report in his July 11 article is that many of the Guantanamo detainees who spoke to Spry’s FBI interviewers said that U.S. personnel were present during the massacre. In a July 22 report, tells of a recent exclusive interview it conducted with Spry, in which he said that “he informed Risen about the additional allegations that U.S. forces were present.” Salon contacted Risen, who confirmed that Spry had told him of the allegations. But Risen told Salon he decided not to publish what the detainees had said “in part, because he didn’t believe them.” Risen said: “I just felt like the whole issue of potential U.S. involvement in the massacre could not be proven and was not conclusive. Frankly, I don’t believe it, and it detracts from the rest of the story. It had been a stumbling block for this story for some time.” (See

This, to put it mildly, is outrageous. It appears that Risen (perhaps with the go-ahead from his Times editors) has taken it upon himself to censor potentially explosive claims by the detainees of possible U.S. involvement in the massacre because these claims “could not be proven” and were “not conclusive.” Well, for one thing, the major reason why there is not yet conclusive evidence, one way or the other, is that for nearly eight years, the U.S. government has thrown obstacle after obstacle in the path of those calling for a thorough investigation, including requests from some of their own officials in the FBI and the State Department, along with the Red Cross and human rights groups like Physicians for Human Rights, some of whose members discovered the mass grave site in 2002 and have been demanding an investigation ever since.

In Descent into Chaos,Ahmed Rashid writes that “...witnesses who had given testimony, such as the lorry drivers, mysteriously disappeared. Eyewitness accounts and video footage showed that U.S. Special Operations Forces were present in Kunduz, and the Pentagon was repeatedly asked why the U.S. soldiers did not try to stop the loading of the prisoners into the containers.” (p. 94)

Risen himself reports that “several Afghan witnesses” to the massacre “were later tortured or killed.” What, we must ask, did those tortured, killed, or disappeared witnesses actually see?

Further, is Mr. Risen unaware of the years and years of cover-up of the slaughter by U.S forces, in one incident, of hundreds of civilians during the Korean War? Or the attempted cover-up from on high of the slaughter of almost all the inhabitants, including the women and children, of a Vietnamese village, My Lai, during the Vietnam War? Or the more recent attempted cover-up of the torture of many at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison?

Another Obama Promise

Shortly after publication of Risen’s July 11 article, President Obama told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in an interview that he has directed his national security team to look into the massacre, saying that if U.S. conduct at that time “in some way supported violations of laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that.”

What will actually happen remains to be seen. But it needs to be stressed that, in his first half-year in office, Obama has promised “change” that has devolved into nothing more than the same Bush regime policies in glossier packaging. In May, for example, Obama reversed his previously announced position and said he would block the release of some 2,000 photos documenting U.S. military personnel torturing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing that to release the photos “would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.” But now Obama is sending 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, to join the 38,000 already there. Wouldn’t a serious investigation of what happened in November 2001 in Afghanistan—and with everything learned fully published—be seen by Obama as yet something else that could “further inflame anti-American opinion” (why shouldn’t it!?) and “put our troops in greater danger?”

But while Obama worries about the safety of U.S. troops—who are carrying out such war crimes—we need to ask what this growing occupation means for the Afghan people. One stark example: on May 4 of this year, a U.S. air strike killed over 140 people in the western province of Farah. U.S. officials claimed the strike was targeting Taliban fighters, but surviving villagers said the Taliban had left before the air strike began. Families said they were sitting down to dinner when the bombs fell.

The atrocities of the system of U.S. imperialism continue...and so do the cover-ups.

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