When does a massacre matter?

Evidence that American allies in Afghanistan slaughtered captured Taliban soldiers first surfaced last spring. Will a Newsweek cover story force an investigation? So far, the U.S. and U.N. say no.

Published August 21, 2002 12:28AM (EDT)

In June, when Irish documentarian Jamie Doran screened his film "Massacre at Mazar" for the German and European parliaments, the European media jumped on the tragic story. According to the documentary, a Northern Alliance general along with other witnesses recounted how hundreds, perhaps thousands, of captured Taliban soldiers were intentionally smothered in metal containers en route from the Qala-I-Zeini fortress to Sherberghan prison. Physicians for Human Rights had reported the existence of mass graves in the desert near Sherberghan in May, and after his documentary screened, Doran was fielding calls from dozens of American news agencies and expecting the story to break big in the U.S.

But it didn't, until now. On Monday, Newsweek published a cover story detailing what it called "The Killing Fields of Afghanistan." Saying that "The dead of Dasht-e Leili -- and the horrific manner of their killing -- are one of the dirty little secrets of the Afghan war," the article confirmed much of the story that Physicians for Human Rights has been telling for months. Thousands of surrendered Taliban soldiers were packed into metal containers, without air or water, by members of warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum's militia. Though the Newsweek investigation didn't mention Doran, it confirmed his story that truck drivers, commandeered to transport the containers, were forbidden from punching air holes in the cages, despite the men's dying screams.

While there is no firm number of how many died at Dasht-e Leili, there is now abundant evidence that the Northern Alliance, America's proxies, committed war crimes. The question is whether anyone cares.

Since first finding evidence of a massacre and mass graves, the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights has been fighting to preserve the Dasht-e Leili grave site from both natural depredations and human tampering, so that its evidence can be used in some sort of future war-crimes trial or reconciliation commission. "Part of the reconstruction of Afghanistan should be an accountability process, and evidence yielded from this site and other sites is critical to that," says John Heffernan, a research consultant for Physicians for Human Rights who was part of the team that first discovered the mass graves. "The longer we wait, the more likely this evidence will be tampered with."

The group has been calling for months for an official United Nations investigation of the grave -- with no results. According to a confidential U.N. memo quoted by Newsweek, while the Dasht-e Leili graves "are sufficient to justify a fully-fledged criminal investigation," the proceedings would be politically dicey. "Considering the political sensitivity of this case and related protection concerns, it is strongly recommended that all activities relevant to this case be brought to a halt until a decision is made concerning the final goal of the exercise: criminal trial, truth commission, other, etc." Physicians for Human Rights hopes that media attention will end such dithering. "We're hoping that [the Newsweek story] gives the whole issue some traction and reinforces the urgency of what we've been saying all along," Heffernan says. "We haven't gotten anywhere in terms of protecting and investigating the site. We're hoping this might persuade the U.S. government and the international community that this needs to be done."

But that might be wishful thinking. There's no question that intentionally killing prisoners is a grievous violation of international law. "The humane protection of prisoners is a central tenet of the customary law of war no matter what kind of war it is," says Ruth Wedgewood, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in international law and war-crimes trials. But there may be little stomach to pursue allegations against the Northern Alliance, given the despicable nature of al-Qaida and Taliban crimes.

And for an investigation to proceed, U.S. involvement is crucial, experts say. "The United States is really the only power that can make sure in one way or another that security is provided to the site," says Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights. "The United States is necessary to make sure that politically this investigation can go forward."

But it's unlikely that the U.S. is going to act without intense public pressure, which would require a domestic outcry on behalf of the slaughtered Talibs. For one thing, discoveries of Northern Alliance atrocities may taint American soldiers, who nominally supervised some of them. While Doran's witnesses allege American complicity in war crimes, both Physicians for Human Rights and the Newsweek article insist there's no evidence of U.S. involvement. Nevertheless, the U.S. military could still be blamed. As Wedgewood says, the law of command responsibility states that superiors have a responsibility to monitor and prevent criminal violations by people under their command.

In this case the hierarchy isn't clear cut -- there's a question of how much authority U.S. troops had over Dostum's forces. Still, the Bush administration finds even a minuscule risk of exposing American troops to war-crimes prosecutions intolerable, which is why it's been lobbying for an exemption to the International Criminal Court.

Presently, the U.S. has no intention of investigating, and the U.N. has no plans for a formal inquiry, either. According to Defense Department spokesman David Lapan, the Pentagon "doesn't have information one way or the other as to whether these alleged atrocities occurred" and isn't going to pursue it. "We don't feel it's in our realm to conduct an investigation into something that we have no information to lead us to believe that American forces were involved in," he says. "If the U.N. wants to conduct an inquiry, we're certainly not going to stand in the way of that." And according to Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, "the Security Council has no plans to take this issue up."

So for the moment, it seems the murder of Taliban soldiers will go unpunished. Should that matter? After all, Afghanistan is soaked in blood, and many argue that it's naive to expect violent warlords with a medieval mentality to hew to the Geneva conventions. "These guys play a power game that I think is not hard to understand at all. It's based on one principle: Force wins," says Tom Bissell, whose book about Uzbekistan comes out next year. "I think they would laugh at anyone who tried to show them just why naked force in achieving your end is out of international bounds."

Bissell heard rumors about the massacre when he was in Mazar-I-Sharif earlier this year. At the time, he was unmoved, having seen what the Taliban had wrought. With distance, his views have mellowed. "I think we should absolutely submit to that inquiry. Moral relativism is a real ugly thing," he says. "We're a rogue nation if we don't abide by some semblance of international law."

Yet the idea that excavating the truth about these killings would aid in Afghanistan's national reconstruction or its healing strikes Bissell as unlikely. "I hate talking about ancient hatreds, I find it insulting and racist, but there's a lot of grief in these people. Who would they be reconciling with? They've been getting it from all sides for the last 25 years."

Nevertheless, says Rubenstein, "There needs to be some accountability. Perpetrators have to be brought to justice. That is the basis of the effort to secure war-crimes investigations and prosecutions for last 50 years. In this region in Northern Afghanistan, there have been many atrocities and massacres, including massacres committed by Taliban over last five years. One hope is that if there is justice, the cycle of retaliation could stop."

Besides, he says, "These dead also have their own families, and their families have a right to know what happened to them. Many Taliban soldiers in Sherberghan prison claim to be involuntary soldiers, impressed into service by the Taliban. The circumstance of their participation needs to be looked at."

Finally, there's simple morality. To say it just doesn't matter what our allies do or what our enemies suffer, says Rubenstein, "is a good way for a quick descent into hell."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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