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Dasht-E Leili


The Tipton Three, recently released from Guantanamo, and telling their story to the British media, disclosed that they had first been captured in Afghanistan by the Taliban, then swept into the prisons of the Northern Alliance.

In late November 2001 the three had been herded into two truck containers, which were then driven from the crowded jail at Sheberghan to a final destination in the Dasht-e Leili desert, where the prisoners were dumped, most of them dead from suffocation; the three survived, barely, because a little air had come in through bullet holes.

The truck containers were each stuffed with 200 or more prisoners, and according to one Afghan military man 25 containers were sent out to the desert: some 4,500 prisoners in all, a majority dying en route, many of the remainder shot on arrival.

In his 2002 documentary describing this “Massacre at Mazar,” based on numerous interviews with observers, officials, participants, human rights and forensic specialists, and survivors, and visits to the grave sites, Irish film-maker Jamie Doran concluded that somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 men were killed in this container truck operation and its aftermath.

He also provided compelling witness evidence that U.S. army, Special Forces, and CIA personnel were on the scene, participated in the abuse of the prisoners, did not interfere in any way with the operation, and at various points seemed in overall command. One witness claimed that U.S. personnel urged quick burial at Dasht-e Leili so that bodies would not be seen by satellite.

Visiting the Dasht-e Leili sites back in late 2001 and early 2002, forensic experts from the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) found a very large grave site, densely packed, with a few sample bodies showing signs of death by suffocation.

PHR and Amnesty International representatives urged that the site be protected for further examination and that an investigation be carried out of what appeared to have been a major human rights disaster and war crime. But nothing happened, as I will describe and explain later.

It will be recalled that 45 bodies at Racak in Kosovo in January 1999 caused then Yugoslavia Tribunal prosecutor Louise Arbour to cry out about war crimes and try to rush to the scene, with ensuing publicity that had much to do with the March 1999 commencement of the bombing attack on Yugoslavia.

The Srebrenica killings in July 1995 were alleged to number 7,000-8,000, but nowhere near that number of bodies were ever found, and many of those found were not executed but were killed in furious battles (with hundreds of Bosnian Serb soldiers killed in the same fighting).

No grave site discovered in Bosnia is comparable in size to the acre-large, densely packed site at Dasht-e Leili. It is very probable that executions at Srebrenica were fewer, and likely considerably fewer, than the extremely cruel executions–mainly by suffocation–at Dasht-e Leili. But Srebrenica has become a symbol of massacre and has been an important moral and public relations base of the prosecution of Milosevic and other Serbs at the Hague, as well as a rationale for a larger interventionist role by the benevolent West. The public will not recognize the name Dasht-e Leili.

The difference in the treatment of these cases is easily explained. The Racak incident fitted U.S. and NATO plans for attacking Yugoslavia, and as Madeleine Albright said happily to Sandy Berger on hearing of the incident: “Spring has come early this year.”

The Srebrenica killings also fit U.S. and Western plans to intensify the Western commitment to bring the Serbs to heel. The Yugoslav Tribunal prosecutor, media and “cruise missile left” intellectuals therefore rushed into the breach, with publicity and indignation that would provide the basis for judicial and military action.

By contrast, the Dasht-e Leili massacre was carried out by a U.S. client, with U.S. personnel at the killing sites, not interfering with the killing and in some accounts participating and showing signs of being in charge of operations.

As the dominant party in the Afghanistan fighting, protector and supplier of the Northern Alliance, the United States was arguably responsible for the Dasht-e Leili massacre as top command, apart from any question about immediate participation. Its personnel had participated in the surrender of some 8,000 Taliban and allied fighters at Konduz, where they had been promised decent treatment, subsequently completely ignored and violated. If the Yugoslavia Tribunal had evidence of Milosevic’s connection with Srebrenica in any way comparable to the evidence of the U.S. link to Dasht-e Leili, the prosecutors would have thrown a very big party.

The neglect of Dasht-e Leili throughout the global structure of interest and power follows from these basic facts of U.S. (and British) support of the killers and partial direct as well as command responsibility for the killings. The United States refuses to allow its personnel to be dealt with by international bodies on matters of possible criminal behavior, and as standard practice it denies or plays down any criminal incidents or massacres carried out by its personnel or by its clients.

The UN Security Council and Kofi Annan will never do anything that the United States opposes strongly, and there are no international bodies with investigative and punitive powers that will move against U.S. desires, and none will be established for special investigation and the pursuit of justice. With some honorable but powerless exceptions the world’s NGOs will not make much noise about a U.S.-approved massacre, nor will the Western (and especially U.S.) media and “humanitarian intervention” intellectuals.

We may hark back to the global double standard in dealing with Pol Pot in Cambodia and Suharto in East Timor, with Pol Pot subjected to intense and frenzied propaganda as a genocidist, Suharto, engaging in aggression as well as a huge massacre, but “our kind of guy” (Clinton official) and therefore a continued recipient of aid, and with no labeling as a genocidist but rather a man who brought “stability” (Barbara Crossette, NYT).

However, when Vietnam ousted genocidist Pol Pot, instead of a reward for “humanitarian intervention” Vietnam was punished further for “aggression” while Pol Pot retained the UN seat for Cambodia.

In sum, how the Godfather relates to massacres essentially determines how they will be treated by the international community. It works like this:

—The Principles: Where the Godfather can use killings to justify his intervention, killings by the target will be labeled a “massacre,” or even “genocide,” their size will be inflated (100,000 and 500,000 killed in Kosovo were figures thrown out by the State Department during the 78-day bombing war), and large resources will be expended in forensic searches for bodies (Clinton gave the ICTY $26 million for such a post-bombing-war search in Kosovo in 1999).

In cases where large-scale killings are by clients such as Indonesia in East Timor, from 1975 but resurgent in 1999, or by the Northern Alliance at Dasht-e Leili in 2001, no non-token monies or forensic experts for investigation in the interests of justice are provided by the United States, or by the UN. PHR and Amnesty International strongly urged the United States and UN to protect the Dasht-e Leili grave sites and to fund an investigation for war crimes there, but there was no response on behalf of these unworthy victims (or on behalf of mere justice).

—The UN: Newsweek reported in “The Death Convoy of Afghanistan” (Aug. 26, 2002), that a confidential UN memo stated that while the facts of Dasht-e Leili “are sufficient to justify a full-fledged investigation,” the problem is “the political sensitivity of this case,” so that all action should be postponed “until a decision is made concerning the final goal of this exercise.” Translated from gobbledygook: as the Godfather was closely involved in these crimes, forget it.

—The Human Rights Groups: PHR said that “The examination of bodies and dignified burial of remains [from Dasht-e Leili] will contribute to the truth and accountability process which is essential for future peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

PHR is mistaken: this line of argument is only applicable in places like the former Yugoslavia in justifying the pursuit of villains —it is not applicable in places like Afghanistan and Indonesia where the possible villains are “our kinds of guy.” While the PHR, AI and to a lesser extent Human Rights Watch gave some attention to Dasht-e Leili, none of the NGOs were prepared to make the Dasht-e Leili massacre into a major campaign.

—The Media: When Jamie Doran’s “Massacre at Mazar” was shown in preliminary form in Europe in June 2002, the European media gave it some attention, although brief, but the film was not mentioned once by the mainstream U.S. media. Newsweek’s substantial article on “The Death Convoy of Afghanistan” (August 26, 2002) led to a tiny flurry of reports elsewhere in the media, after which it was quickly dropped.

When the Tipton Three were released from Guantanamo in early March 2004, among their other revelations was their personal experience barely surviving the “death convoy.” While this was reported in the British media the New York Times failed to mention this feature of the disclosures (see further, Edward Herman, “The United States as Torture Central,” Z Magazine, May 2004 [forthcoming]).

—The Cruise Missile Left: The cruise missile left displayed the same pattern of service to state policy. Samantha Power, Michael Ignatieff, David Rieff, Aryeh Neier, Christopher Hitchens, and Timothy Garton Ash, who had focused with great indignation on massacres by official targets in Yugoslavia (Racak, Srebrenica) and Iraq (Halabja), but not on those by the United States and its clients in those same countries (Serb Krajina, NATO-occupied Kosovo, the “sanctions of mass destruction in Iraq, 1991-2002), or by Indonesia in East Timor (Liquica), predictably have overlooked the “death convoy” in Afghanistan.

A Nexis search shows zero mentions of Dasht-e Leili by these six analysts for the period November 28, 2001 through March 2004.

—So once again we see how smoothly the system works, with power determining which massacres are worthy of attention and indignation, and that power causing everybody else to fall in line—the craven allies who remain silent; Kofi Annan and the UN adjusting nicely to the “political sensitivity” of dealing with a U.S.-sponsored massacre; the NGOs, a few calling for an investigation, but most of them quiet and channeling their benevolence in accord with funding sources and practicality; the mainstream media, as always, recognizing the unworthiness of the victims of U.S.-sponsored violence and looking elsewhere; and the cruise missile left doing the same.

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