Bush administration officials discouraged an investigation into a mass killing in Afghanistan, government officials and human rights workers say. Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war were killed by forces under Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord who was backed by the United States during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, The New York Times reported Saturday.
An investigation into the killings was requested by the FBI, the State Department, the Red Cross and by human rights groups. They told the Times the Bush administration would not investigate because Dostum was on the CIA payroll. The general also served in the government of President Hamid Karzai, who was supported by the United States.
The Obama administration has not addressed the issue yet, but State Department officials are working to keep Dostum from staying on as military chief of staff to the Afghan president, senior officials told the Times. Dostum was reappointed to the post after a suspension for allegedly threatening a political rival.
He is considered an important ally of Karzai, the Times said. The new US administration has maintained frostier relations with Karzai, whose government is seen as corrupt and unpopular, although Obama has dispatched 21,000 fresh troops to fight a mounting Taliban-led insurgency ahead of August elections, the report said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the special US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, have told Karzai they objected to the recent reinstatement of Dostam as military chief of staff, the Times said, citing a senior State Department official.
“We believe that anyone suspected of war crimes should be thoroughly investigated,” the official added, hinting the Obama administration is open to an inquiry. Dostam, whose alleged killings may have amounted to the biggest war crime in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, was reinstated to his post last month after being suspended last year for allegedly threatening a political opponent at gunpoint.
But he remains in exile in Turkey. The killings took place in late November 2001, shortly after the invasion that ousted Kabul’s Taliban government.Taliban prisoners captured by Dostam’s forces after a major battle in northeastern Kunduz province were allegedly packed into shipping containers and left to suffocate, or were shot through the container walls, before being buried in mass graves.
Estimates on the number of people killed have ranged from several hundred to several thousand. Survivors and witnesses told The New York Times and Newsweek in 2002 that over a three-day period, Taliban prisoners were stuffed into closed metal shipping containers and given no food or water; many suffocated while being trucked to the prison.
Other prisoners were killed when guards shot into the containers. The bodies were said to have been buried in a mass grave in Dasht-i-Leili, a stretch of desert just outside Shibarghan. A recently declassified 2002 State Department intelligence report states that one source, whose identity is redacted, concluded that about 1,500 Taliban prisoners died.
Estimates from other witnesses or human rights groups range from several hundred to several thousand. The report also says that several Afghan witnesses were later tortured or killed. The Pentagon, however, showed little interest in the matter.
In 2002, Physicians for Human Rights asked Defence 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.