Response to General Dostum

Last week’s revelations about war crimes committed in Afghanistan in 2001 and the US supported cover up have caused quite a stir. Even General Abdul Dostum, the alleged perpetrator of the mass killings of Taliban prisoners of war, made a public comment, stating that it is impossible prisoners were abused”. Right. My colleague Sam Zarifi wrote up an excellent response. He brings in his first hand experience in Afghanistan. Here are some excerpts:

If, as Dostum asserts, there were investigations by the Afghan and U.S. governments, they should be made public. If their findings were accurate, Dostum should have nothing to fear from a reexamination of the facts. But the facts currently available indicate very strongly that many detainees – possibly hundreds – died while in the custody of Dostum’s forces in November 2001 and their bodies were dumped in the nearby desert of Dasht-e Leili (adding to the numerous bodies unceremoniously deposited there by various warring factions over the past three decades).
I was a human rights investigator in northwestern Afghanistan in February 2002. At the time, numerous witnesses spoke of seeing several trucks dumping what appeared to be human remains in Dasht-e Leili, while others told of detainees being held for days in overcrowded shipping containers without food, water, or medical care, and, in some instances, being shot while inside the containers.

Crucially, the International Committee of the Red Cross did not have access to the Taliban detainees at Sheberghan until December 10, 2001 – and thus could not monitor their conditions during the period when the detainees died. This undermines Dostum’s claim that a massacre could not have occurred because the ICRC would have known about it.
Dostum is correct in one regard: There is a highly politicized atmosphere surrounding the timing of the increased attention to this incident, and that is linked to President Hamid Karzai’s reinstatement of Dostum as the army chief of staff after he had been removed in disgrace last year. Karzai has also nominated as his vice presidential candidate Marshal Fahim, another Northern Alliance commander facing widespread allegations of serious human rights violations and war crimes.
Many Afghans, who have repeatedly demanded truth and accountability for the three decades of atrocities they have endured, have told Amnesty International they are extremely disappointed by the presence of such figures in Karzai’s administration. The ongoing impunity of senior government officials has done much to erode public confidence in the Afghan government, something now readily acknowledged even by international militaries.
General Dostum has bemoaned the increasing operations of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda after seven years of international nation building. It is time to ask: After seven years of appeasing warlords and human rights violators, isn’t it time for the Afghan government and its international supporters to try truth and accountability?

Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

War Crimes in Afghanistan. Or: What You Don't Learn in Science Class

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) demonstrated in a more than impressive way this week how science and technology can advance the cause of human rights. Using forensic analysis and satellite imagery, they did an excellent job in documenting a war crime—and the subsequent US supported cover-up—in Afghanistan, where in the wake of the US led invasion in 2001 hundreds of prisoners of war were killed by a US backed warlord and dumped in a mass grave in Dasht-e-Leili. Check out this must see video:

The New York Times has covered the story in an extensive piece last weekend. PHR has set up its own website, where you can also urge Attorney General Eric Holder to halt the cover-up.  The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—who supported the project and with whom AIUSA’s own Science for Human Rights project has a longstanding partnership—also provided a detailed analysis of the gravesite and its cover-up. Here’s a quick summary of the story:

In 2002, PHR investigators discovered the presence of a mass grave site in Dasht-e-Leili, outside of the city of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan.  The grave site is reported to contain anywhere from hundreds to thousands of Taliban prisoners of war. Forensic analysis suggests that most of the prisoners died from suffocation. They reportedly died while inside closed metal shipping containers.

Upon returning to the site in 2008, Stefan Schmitt, Director of PHR’s International Forensic Program, noticed that the mass grave might have been tampered with.  To gather additional evidence, PHR requested satellite imagery from the area, which showed two sizeable pits, compromising the original area. The satellite imagery obtained by the AAAS indicated that there was earth-moving equipment present on August 5, 2006 along with one of two new pits.  Later imagery on October 24, 2007, revealed the second pit in the same location as the earth-moving equipment from August 5.  

The left image shows the Dasht-e-Leili site on August 5, 2006, and indicates one open pit visible at the mass grave site, with two likely vehicles atop the area which would become the second pit. The right image shows the Dasht-e-Leili site on October 24, 2007, with both open pits visible. © 2009 Digital Globe. Images taken from


The Bush Administration discouraged any attempts to investigate the episode, as the warlord suspected of committing the crimes, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, was on the C.I.A.’s payroll, while his militia worked alongside the United States Special Forces in 2001.  The Department of State has urged the Obama administration to oppose Gen. Dostum’s reappointment in the Afghani government; however the president has yet to take action on this issue.
As we still wait for the President to ensure accountability for past human rights violations of the Bush administration, this is another test of Obama’s commitment to human rights.  It will be interesting to see if the administration fully investigates the 2001 killings in Afghanistan, at a time when Obama is sending an additional 21,000 more troops to battle the increasing Taliban insurgency. A first response by Obama to PHR’s work seems at least promising.

Jacki Mowery contributed to this post