The Times Remembers the Dasht-e-Leili Massacre
It is always interesting and enlightening to see the New York Times picking up a story belatedly and tracing through the reasons for its early neglect and later resuscitation. This often fits the Orwellian Big Brother principle of using a story only when it is politically helpful and suppressing it when it is inconvenient—forgetting, "and then, when it become necessary again [drawing] it back from oblivion" (1984). My favorite case was the failure of the New York Times to mention the Salvadoran army death list of 138 left-wing and liberal politicians back in 1982, when the United States was supporting a "demonstration election" there and publicizing the death list would suggest unfavorable electoral conditions, but then mentioning that list in 1989 when the left was tentatively entering an election and the paper was anxious to put that election in a good light, contrasting it with the bad old days (Lindsay Gruson, "A Fingerhold for Dissent," March 17, 1989).
Of course, examples of this and other Orwellian processes abound. An important and notorious one was the almost complete suppression of the Reagan-era alliance with and support for Saddam Hussein—weapons supply, intelligence aid during the war with Iran, agricultural loans, protections against UN condemnations or more biting actions following his use of chemical weapons—after he was transformed into "another Hitler" on August 2, 1990 (he invaded Kuwait on August 1). Again, quoting Orwell: "The Party said that Oceania [here, the United States] had never been in alliance with Eurasia [here, Iraq]. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia so short a time as four years ago." No denial in the U.S.-Iraq case, just a playing dumb about the earlier alliance along with a freshly minted intense indignation at the bad man.
Dasht-e-Leili grave—photos from Physicians for Human Rights
Another fine case can be seen in connection with the recent New York Times front-page article and editorial on the Dasht-e-Leili massacre in Afghanistan (James Risen, "U.S. Inaction Seen After Taliban P.O.W.s Died," July 11, 2009; editorial, "The Truth About Dasht-e-Leili," July 14, 2009). This case harks back to November 2001 when, as asserted in a recent (July 14) editorial, "fighters under the command of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum stuffed surrendering Taliban prisoners into metal shipping containers without food or water. Many suffocated. Guards shot others to death. The victims are believed to be buried in a grave in the desert of Dasht-i-Leili in northern Afghanistan."
The editors now denounce as a "sordid legacy" of the Bush administration its "refusal to investigate charges" of these killings. "There can be no justification for the horrors or for the willingness of the United States and Afghanistan to look the other way." But the truth of the matter is that when the Bush administration refused to "investigate charges" and "looked the other way" back in 2001 and 2002, so did the New York Times. The paper had no editorials or opinion columns on the case and only two news articles by John Burns even dealt with the Dasht-e-Leili massacre (a word that Burns doesn’t apply to this case), neither published till August 2002.
In the first one, Burns mentions that "as many as 1,000 others [prisoners] died from wounds or during transport in freight containers to that notorious prison at the northern town of Sheberghan, their desperate appeals for water and fresh air denied by captors who buried them later at a mass grave near the remote village of Dasht-e-Leili." This lonely sentence seems a bit cavalier for a cruel and large-scale massacre and its insignificance is highlighted by the title of Burns’s article, which featured not the killings, but the "problem" posed by prisoners to Afghan president Karzai ("Foreign Prisoners Becoming a Problem for Karzai," August 23, 2002).
A second article by Burns does focus on the massacre: "Political Realities Impeding Full Inquiry Into Afghan Atrocity" (August 29, 2002). This article, which closed out the Times‘ interest in this story till 2009, was surely precipitated by what was possibly the most substantial news article on the Dasht-e-Leili massacre to appear in the mainstream media—a Newsweek piece on August 26, 2002, "The Death Convoy of Afghanistan." Burns again says that "as many as 1,000" Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners may have died in this convoy, but this estimate is on the low side. (Jamie Doran, who spoke to many participants and witnesses in making his documentary, Massacre at Mazar, estimates between 3,000 and 5,000.)
Most of Burns’s article is on the "political realities" that make pursuit of the case unlikely. Mostly, it’s about how General Dostum is in charge in this territory and he hasn’t cooperated. The UN representative for Afghanistan said that an investigation was stymied because investigators and witnesses couldn’t be protected. Nowhere does Burns mention that Dostum was on the U.S. payroll or suggest that inaction flowed from a U.S. unwillingness to pursue the matter. Toward the end, Burns cites a U.S. general claiming that there had been no involvement in this atrocity by U.S. personnel and that the U.S. would only consider helping with an investigation if the Pentagon "were asked by the Kabul government" to do so. Burns does not dig any further on the relations between the U.S. and Afghan governments or the truth of the claim of U.S. non-involvement or the possible deeper reasons why the Pentagon might have dragged its feet.
Physicians for Humans Rights (PHR), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all called attention to Dasht-e-Leili in 2001 and 2002 and PHR urged the importance of protecting the huge burial site for possible future investigation. This was not reported in the New York Times, although in its editorial of July 14, 2009, the editors rather late in the game do say "the site must be guarded and the witnesses protected."
The Times had an opportunity to look more deeply into the case when Massacre at Mazar was shown in Europe in June 2002. This documentary cited a number of witnesses testifying that U.S. Army, Special Forces, and CIA personnel were on the scene when the atrocities occurred and, at several points, seemed to be in overall command. One witness claimed that U.S. personnel urged a quick burial to avoid satellite observance. While this documentarywas shown and reported on in Europe, it was never mentioned in the U.S. mass media, including the New York Times.
Another occasion when this story surfaced occurred in March 2004, at which time the "Tipton Three" were finally released from Guantanamo after several years of incarceration and torture. This release followed British government documentation that the claims of their involvement in terrorism were based on torture-induced falsifications. While the British media were full of quotes from the released victims on the "hell" they had undergone, the four New York Times articles that mentioned this case were essentially apologetics for Guantanamo, with no details or quotes from the victims and twice as much space given to Pentagon replies than to victims’ claims. Times reporters never mention that the Tipton Three were falsely accused by other prisoners, apparently based on torture, and that the Three themselves eventually gave up and "confessed," before an inquiry in Britain showed them to be innocent.
Most relevant here, none of the New York Times articles mention the Tipton Three’s experiences in Northern Afghanistan and their claims about the Dasht-e-Leili massacre in which they were among the small number of barely surviving victims.
For half a decade the New York Times followed the official, Bush administration party line that sought to evade any investigation, let alone search for justice, in the Dasht-e-Leili massacre case. With each opportunity to look more closely at the subject and bring it to public attention, the Times failed to do so. The Bush administration wanted the paper to look the other way and it did, and the "sordid legacy" of George Bush is also part of the sordid legacy of the New York Times.
Why is the paper changing its tune now? The editors are open about it. They say that "the administration is pressing Mr. Karzai not to return General Dostum to power. Mr. Obama needs to order a full investigation into the massacre" (ed., July 14, 2009). Now, the editors acknowledge that back in 2001 Dostum "was on the C.I.A. payroll and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in the early days of the war." But seven years ago John Burns quoted a Pentagon general saying that "there is no evidence that America troops were in any way involved in what happened at Shibarghan [sic]." At that time General Dostum was doing what the Pentagon wanted him to do; now the Administration wants Dostum out of the way. And the news fit to print changes accordingly.
Edward S. Herman is an economist and media analyst with a specialty in corporate and regulatory issues as well as political economy and the media.