U.S. President Barack Obama says he is collecting facts about the killing of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners in November 2001, reportedly by fighters of a U.S.-backed warlord in northern Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Obama says he only recently became aware that the incident has never been properly investigated.
Speaking in an interview with CNN, Obama said he has called on his national-security team to collect facts about the case. Obama said he would make a decision on whether to move forward with a detailed investigation once all available facts are gathered.
"There are responsibilities that all nations have, even in war. And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that we have to know about that," Obama said.Undermine Support
Obama's remarks follow an investigative report in "The New York Times" on July 10 which claims the Bush administration repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the killings because Dostum was on the payroll of the CIA and because Dostum's militia forces were working closely with U.S. Special Forces against the Taliban.
Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Ryder, who is with the Pentagon's Public Affairs Office, told RFE/RL that "the Department of Defense looked into this alleged incident and found no evidence of U.S. military participation, presence or knowledge. Our forces weren't there, didn't watch, and didn't know about it."
Abdul Rashid Dostum in Kabul in December 2001
He said the Defense Department is carrying out Obama's request to pull together all available information about the incident.
"The New York Times" report also said the Bush administration was concerned that a war-crimes investigation could undermine support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. Dostum -- a key ally in the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance against the Taliban -- later became a defense official in Karzai's transitional and elected governments.
Dostum has been living in exile in Turkey since last year, when he was accused of threatening a political opponent at gunpoint. But the war-crime allegations have taken on renewed urgency because Karzai recently reinstated Dostum to his defense post.
Nadir Nadiri, a member of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan there is no doubt that a major war crime was committed near the town of Sheberghan in late 2001.
"It is clear that a huge crime had occurred here. A large number of war prisoners were killed. Their bodies were found buried," Nadiri said. "Preliminary investigations have proven that a crime took place. There is no room for doubt about that.
"The second important point in this case is to identify those who were involved in this crime. Some [Afghan] people are accused. It is also said that U.S. troops were stationed close to where the incident took place could also be seen as being complicit. It is very important for gaining the trust of Afghan people, for building trust between the public and Afghanistan's government, to investigate this where possible."Mass Grave
Indeed, as many as 2,000 Taliban prisoners are thought to have died inside closed metal shipping containers after surrendering to Dostum's militia.
They were being transported to a prison near Sheberghan and reportedly were not given food or water for up to three days. Witnesses say many of the men suffocated, and that others were killed when guards shot into the containers.
Their bodies are said to have been buried in a mass grave at Dasht-e Laili, just outside of Sheberghan.
Dostum has said that any deaths of the Taliban prisoners were unintentional. He also has said that only 200 Taliban died while being transported to Sheberghan, mostly from combat injuries or disease.
Sam Zia Zarifi, now the Asia program director for Amnesty International, was a researcher for Human Rights Watch who investigated the mass grave at Dasht-i Laili shortly after the collapse of the Taliban regime. Zarifi told RFE/RL his personal experience is that both the United States and the United Nations had discouraged investigations there.
"This incident is only one of many in Afghanistan that deserve to be investigated," Zarifi said. "Physicians for Human Rights [an independent, U.S.-based nongovernmental organization] certainly tried to do an investigation. The U.S. initially, and at some point Lakhdar Brahimi, who was then in charge of the UN [Assistance Mission in Afghanistan], greatly discouraged it because General Dostum was a significant political actor."
Zarifi says he thinks much of the evidence at the mass grave has been destroyed since then.
"In early 2002, when the team from Human Rights Watch that I was on was there, you could just drive up to Dasht-i Laili and see [the mass grave]. The ground had been recently dug up and there were remains of clothing and bones coming to the surface," Zarifi said.
"Human Rights Watch, along with other organizations, alerted both the United Nations and the Afghan government about the importance of this site. The decision was taken at that time by the UN, as well as the militaries, not to secure the site. I wouldn't be surprised at all if somebody who was worried about what could be discovered from that site has gone back and dug everything up," he said.
The group that discovered the mass grave -- Physicians for Human Rights -- also has documented how the site was destroyed. But that group's deputy director, Susannah Sirkin, tells RFE/RL she thinks there is still evidence to be found there.
"Physicians for Human Rights documented about a year ago that there seemed to be a large hole in the area where we have recorded this grave. We now have satellite imagery that shows large apparent earth moving equipment on the site in the summer of 2006. Some of the evidence has clearly been destroyed," Sirkin says.
"One of the things that needs to happen immediately is for President Karzai, with the support of ISAF, to secure that site and make sure that nothing further is done there. We believe there is a lot of evidence that will always remain at a site. And we want to find out who ordered this removal and where the earth was taken," she says.'Shameful'
Zarifi describes the actions of the international community in the case as "shameful."
"The international community knew exactly what it should have protected and why. And it didn't do so at all," he says. "We do know there were American handlers with General Dostum at General Dostum's headquarters. So there is absolutely a need for the U.S. military and the U.S. government to find out what its forces were doing."
In fact, Zarifi says, allegations of U.S. complicity that have appeared in Western documentary films about the massacre are reason enough for Obama to call for a full investigation.
"Another major theme of the allegations was that CIA handlers who were working with General Dostum at the time were somehow involved in this massacre. We could never confirm that," Zarifi says. "Among the issues that were a mystery to us were whether the Americans who were with General Dostum were Special Forces or with the CIA or another branch of the [U.S.] government.
"We did try to see if Americans were directly involved with the massacre. We couldn't verify it simply because of lack of information. I don't want to draw too much of a conclusion from that one way or the other. It is certainly worthy of an investigation."
Representatives from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Physicians for Human Rights have all told RFE/RL they hope the attention now focused on the Sheberghan killings will force Washington to change its policy of turning a blind eye to politically sensitive past events involving other officials in Karzai's government who are accused of committing war crimes in Afghanistan.