Thursday, 16 July 2009
Hats off to Physicians for Human Rights, the organisation that has been fighting a long and lonely battle to investigate the November 2001 killing of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners in northern Afghanistan. Now, it seems, President Obama is willing to reopen the controversy.
The prisoners, who had been captured at Kunduz, were being transported in container trucks by troops under the command of the Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who at the time was being paid by the CIA. When the prisoners eventually arrived at Sheberghan Prison many hundreds of them were dead or dying, having suffocated in the containers. The dead were buried close by in the desert at Dasht-e-Leili (see picture above).
PHR first reported on the killings in February 2002 and has since sent experts to the burial site to verify the story. The location itself, now much tampered with by Dostum's men, is an official war crimes site.
Despite their vociferous and principled campaign, it has taken PHR until this week for the US Administration to respond. You can find a full timeline for the PHR investigation here.
Following a New York Times article by James Risen last week, President Obama signalled that he may act on the scandal. He told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he has directed his national security team to look into the 2001 deaths and stated that the government needs to find out whether actions by the US contributed to possible war crimes. "If it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that", said the President.
But what really lies behind this decision? All the evidence suggests that it is much more political than at first meets the eye. As readers of this blog will know, President Karzai recently reinstated General Dostum in his job as Army chief of staff, despite the fact that he was forced to leave Afghanistan at the end of last year and go into exile in Turkey (which is where he is at present).
The reason for his impending return is simple; President Karzai needs the votes of Dostum's Uzbek supporters and so has done a deal.
This has not gone down well in Washington, where they thought they had got rid of Dostum for good. So it looks like the decision finally to open up the murky history of this massacre is in effect a shot across Karzai's bows. If Dostum is rehabilitated, then the USA will push ahead with a war crimes tribunal.
Anyone who believes in democracy in Afghanistan must make sure that Dostum never returns to the country. Go to the PHR website and register your support for their campaign.