NEW YORK--"I've asked my national security team to ... collect the facts," President Barack Obama told CNN. Then, he said, "we'll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all the facts together."
Such was Obama's tepid reaction to a New York Times cover story about an alleged "mass killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war by the forces of an American-backed warlord during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan."
Obama sounds so reasonable. Doesn't he always? But his reaction to the massacre in the Dasht-i-Leili desert is nothing more than the latest case of his administration refusing to investigate a Bush-era war crime.
There are two things Obama doesn't want you to know about Dasht-i-Leili. First, the political class and U.S. state-controlled media have sat on this story for six to seven years. Second, U.S. troops are accused of participating in the atrocities, which involved 12 times as many murders as My Lai.
The last major battle for northern Afghanistan took place in the city of Kunduz. After a weeks-long siege marked by treachery--at one point, the Taliban pretended to surrender, then turned their weapons on advancing Northern Alliance soldiers--at least 8,000 Taliban POWs fell under the control of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord with a long record of exceptional brutality.
I described what happened next in my column dated Jan. 28, 2003:
"Five thousand of the 8,000 prisoners made the trip to Sheberghan prison in the backs of open-air Soviet-era pick-up trucks ... They stopped and commandeered private container trucks to transport the other 3,000 prisoners. 'It was awful,' Irfan Azgar Ali, a survivor of the trip, told England's Guardian newspaper. 'They crammed us into sealed shipping containers. We had no water for 20 hours. We banged on the side of the container. There was no air and it was very hot. There were 300 of us in my container. By the time we arrived in Sheberghan, only 10 of us were alive.'
"One Afghan trucker, forced to drive one such container, says that the prisoners began to beg for air. Northern Alliance commanders 'told us to stop the trucks, and we came down. After that, they shot into the containers [to make air holes]. Blood came pouring out. They were screaming inside.' Another driver in the convoy estimates that an average of 150 to 160 people died in each container."
According to Scottish filmmaker Jamie Doran, the butchery continued for three days.
Doran's documentary about these events, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, was shown in 50 countries but couldn't get a U.S. release by a media wallowing in the amped-up pseudo-patriotism that marked 2002. Doran's film broke the story. (You can watch it online at video.google.com.) My column brought it to a mainstream American audience:
"When the containers were unlocked at Sheberghan," I wrote in 2003, "the bodies of the dead tumbled out. A 12-man U.S. Fifth Special Forces Group unit, Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595, guarded the prison's front gates ... 'Everything was under the control of the American commanders,' a Northern Alliance soldier tells Doran in the film. American troops searched the bodies for al-Qaida identification cards. But, says another driver, 'Some of [the prisoners] were alive. They were shot' while 'maybe 30 or 40' American soldiers watched."
The Northern Alliance witness told Doran that American commanders advised him to "get rid of them [the bodies] before satellite pictures could be taken." Indeed, satellite photos reveal that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government dispatched bulldozers to the mass grave site in 2006 and removed most of the bodies.
World's Most Dangerous Places writer Robert Young Pelton, a colleague who (like me) was in and around Kunduz in November 2001, denies that Dostum's men or U.S. Special Forces killed more than a few hundred Taliban prisoners. However, the U.S. government started receiving firsthand accounts of the events at Dasht-i-Leili in early 2002. According to the Times "Dell Spry, the FBI's senior representative 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."
"At the very least," Doran says now, "American forces and CIA personnel stood by and did nothing ... But if numerous witnesses are to be believed, their involvement went much further than that." Will Obama hold them accountable? Not unless we insist.
Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, is author of the books To Afghanistan and Back and Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?