No Comment — July 14, 2009, 3:52 pm

The Ghosts of Dasht-i-Leili

Is the Obama Administration turning the corner on investigating the torture question? The evidence is still ambiguous. Obama’s two pit bulls, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, stand firmly in the way. Whether Obama and his attorney general will see their way clear to opt for justice over politics remains a critical test for the first years of their administration.

One of the clouds of shame that hangs over the Bush Administration’s conduct of the “war on terror” relates to events that occurred in the early days of the war in Afghanistan. It was December 2001. The American operations in Afghanistan were coming close to a conclusion in the north. Mazar-i-Sharif, the Afghan city closest to Uzbekistan, had fallen, as had Kunduz, the last stronghold of the Taliban forces in the north. Pakistan’s ISI, with the approval of Vice President Cheney, had gotten a ceasefire so they could evacuate Pakistani advisors from Kunduz–but it turns out that they evacuated hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders instead. The less fortunate, thousands of Taliban and groups aligned with them, were taken prisoner. While prisoners were in the process of being transferred in metal containers, a massacre occurred. Over a period of at least three days up to 3,000 of the prisoners were killed or suffocated to death. It is likely the single gravest war crime involving forces under American guidance in the entire “war on terror.”

The Red Cross, Physicians for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and other groups have attempted patiently to reconstruct what happened at Dasht-i-Leili. The scope of the massacre is plain, and there is substantial evidence that after its initial discovery some efforts were undertaken to destroy the physical evidence.

While the Bush Administration held sway, there was a firm refusal on the part of U.S. athorities to look into the massacre. In reviewing the course of the demands for an investigation in a superlative article in the New York Times on Friday, James Risen raised some troubling questions. As he presents the matter, there was an intramural struggle, with the State Department asking questions and the Pentagon eager to quash any inquiry:

The Pentagon, however, showed little interest in the matter. In 2002, Physicians for Human Rights asked Defense Department officials to open an investigation and provide security for its forensics team to conduct a more thorough examination of the gravesite. “We met with blanket denials from the Pentagon,” recalls Jennifer Leaning, a board member with the group. “They said nothing happened.” Pentagon spokesmen 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.

This follows the patterns of numerous other Rumsfeld-era Pentagon cover-ups. A nominal inquiry is conducted, designed to find nothing and then used to “seal” the matter.

However, the Risen piece doesn’t ask enough questions. As it presents the matter, it’s plain enough that if war crimes were committed, General Dostum—the Uzbek Northern Alliance commander—was the responsible party. The question is therefore cast as relating to the complexities of the political situation in Afghanistan.

But the bigger and more immediate question from the U.S. perspective goes to the role played by U.S. actors in the massacre. There’s little evidence that links them directly to the killing of prisoners. But how did the United States flex its muscle and influence as the massacre was going on, over a period of at least three days? The Rumsfeld Pentagon would have us believe that General Dostum is some rogue figure, unaccountable and out of control, and that they therefore cannot be blamed for what he did at Dasht-i-Leili. Their claims of lack of control, influence, and even information might turn out to be accurate.

But I doubt it. The fact is that General Dostum was funded, armed, and guided by the United States over a period of many years before the events in the late fall of 2001. And as plans for the war effort in Afghanistan came off the shelf and into implementation, U.S. military “coordination” with Dostum made him look suspiciously like an integrated component of the American command. In Jawbreaker, Gary Bernsten’s account of the Afghanistan operations–in which he played a key role as the CIA’s on-the-ground director—the relationship is portrayed very convincingly. Dostum comes off as a scoundrel and doubledealer, but he’s also clearly our rogue, doing our bidding and taking our directions. In Jane Mayer’s Dark Side, she describes a CIA memorandum to Bush that describes Dostum as being on their payroll and operating under CIA direction.

I have my own first-hand observations on this score. In 1996, I witnessed a group of American military and intelligence liaisons not very covertly entertaining some of Dostum’s senior lieutenants in the lobby of Tashkent’s Intercontinental Hotel. It was a jarring experience, and when I remarked about it to a senior staffer at the embassy, he responded that the U.S. relationship with Dostum “wasn’t much of a secret.” At the time the massacre took place at Dasht-i-Leili, there were certainly 30-40 Americans on the ground and involved in dealings with Dostum. Their role was frankly supervisory. They gave directions and Dostum’s fighters followed.

That’s why the Rumsfeld Pentagon’s claims of non-involvement in the massacre are overblown at a minimum. Another troubling aspect of this development concerns an American witness of the massacre: John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban.” Lindh, an American citizen, was with a Taliban unit that bribed Dostum for a safe conduct out of Kunduz. But in a typical move, Dostum had also sold the unit to the Americans, so he seized them and took them to Dasht-i-Leili rather than allowing them to escape. Lindh was tortured on orders that clearly involved Alberto Gonzales and Donald Rumsfeld. Highly political prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia behaved unconscionably in an effort to demonize Lindh, shut him up, and lock him away. I’m convinced that they did this largely because Lindh had a story to tell that would be damaging to two senior Bush Administration figures (Gonzales and Rumsfeld) and that what he witnessed in the massacre at Dasht-i-Leili would also be threatening. They needed Lindh discredited and silenced. Was their conduct part of an orchestrated effort to obstruct an inquiry into the most serious crime of the “war on terror?” It certainly had nothing to do with justice or law enforcement.

It’s time to pry open the door on this massacre and follow the truth, wherever it takes us. President Obama is to be congratulated for overturning the decision of his political underlings and directing a start to the process.

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