No Comment — December 13, 2011, 2:02 pm

Dasht-e-Leili, Ten Years Later

In December 2001, Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, with strong U.S. backing consisting of special-forces units and CIA paramilitary operatives, were close to consolidating their control over the country. Kabul was occupied, and Kunduz, the last major Taliban stronghold in the north, had been crushed. Large numbers of Taliban forces and their allies had surrendered.

Then, in the north, as many as 2,000 prisoners who had surrendered to the Alliance or their American supporters were apparently shot to death or suffocated in sealed metal truck containers while being transferred to Afghanistan’s Sheberghan prison. The dead prisoners from this “convoy of death” were then buried in the northern Afghanistan desert, at Dasht-e-Leili. By the next year, many of the bodies had been exhumed and examined. Some of them bore clear signs of torture.

The incident is without doubt the most serious war crime arising out of the U.S. and Northern Alliance campaign to defeat the Taliban and establish a new regime in Afghanistan. To the best of our knowledge, Americans do not appear to have been involved in carrying out the atrocities, which were reportedly carried out by forces controlled by General Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord who commanded forces in the vicinity of Mazar-e-Sharif, on the Uzbekistan frontier. The Rumsfeld Pentagon disclaimed the U.S. responsibility to investigate the incident on these grounds, and strained to cover up the incident. But it was later established that a significant number of American advisers were on hand at the time of the massacre.

Following these disclosures, in July 2009, CNN’s Anderson Cooper pressed President Barack Obama about the incident. Obama stated that he would ask his national security team “to collect the facts” and would “make a decision on how to approach it once the facts were known.” More than two years have passed since this pledge, but no further evidence has emerged, and no statement or report has been produced to show that an investigation was conducted.

To mark the tenth anniversary of the Dasht-e-Leili massacre, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), an organization that played a key role in uncovering the scope of the incident, has written President Obama to remind him of his promise. “PHR urges you to review and make public the results of your investigation into the Dasht-e-Leili massacre and to address accountability by the U.S. and Afghanistan in regard to this atrocity,” the organization writes.

Nations rarely want to fully expose their involvement in mass human-rights violations. That is true even of countries with an otherwise respectable record of observing the Geneva Conventions and other international instruments of justice. In the case of the Dasht-e-Leili massacre, it is fairly easy to envision how figures within the Pentagon and CIA would push back against an effort to expose the facts. Echoing the Rumsfeld era, they would argue that the massacre was carried out by Dostum’s people, and that they had nothing to do with it. American personnel were present only in an advisory role. Moreover, they might add, uncovering the truth about Dasht-e-Leili would only complicate an already difficult political balancing act for Kabul — Dostum is now viewed as the leader of the nation’s Uzbeks, after all, and reconciling him to Kabul is essential if the Afghan government wishes to hold the north against the resurgent Taliban.

This line of argument could be true, or it could be obscuring darker truths. Exposing atrocities is always politically messy. Nevertheless, an honest, thorough investigation and exposure of the facts, no matter how unpalatable they may be, is a legal and moral obligation for the United States. During the Bush years, the Pentagon discharged that responsibility impressively when ordinary soldiers were involved — but the minute senior political figures or their policy decisions were implicated, a snow storm of obfuscation and denial brought inquiry to a standstill. There is every reason to suspect that the same pattern exists today.

And so, President Obama’s promise to Anderson Cooper seems to have faded in favor of political expedience. Pledging to “look forward, not back” will not erase the stain of Dasht-e-Leili. It will only associate that stain more strongly with the culture of unaccountability in Washington.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2019

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Article
Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Post
Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Article
Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Article
Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.
—Chaucer

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today