General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s statement on allegations surrounding the deaths of Taliban prisoners who surrendered to Northern Alliance forces in November 2001 underscores the need for an urgent inquiry into those events.
More broadly, the renewed attention to this incident highlights the need for the Afghan government and its international supporters to follow through on their commitment to implement the Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation, and Justice in Afghanistan, which aims to address the legacy of more than three decades of human rights abuses in Afghanistan. With presidential and local council elections approaching, such moves are crucial to demonstrating to the Afghan people that the rule of law will be respected in Afghanistan.
Dostum seems eager to head off an investigation into the events of November 2001 using a variety of arguments. One is that the U.S. military and the Northern Alliance have already looked at the allegations and rejected them. Of course, part of any proper probe would be an examination of whether any forces involved knowingly concealed information pertaining to a possible war crime, for doing so could be a violation of international law.
If, as Dostum asserts, there were investigations by the Afghan and U.S. governments, they should be made public. If their findings were accurate, Dostum should have nothing to fear from a reexamination of the facts. But the facts currently available indicate very strongly that many detainees -- possibly hundreds -- died while in the custody of Dostum's forces in November 2001 and their bodies were dumped in the nearby desert of Dasht-e Leili (adding to the numerous bodies unceremoniously deposited there by various warring factions over the past three decades).
Dostum asserts that “it is impossible that Taliban or Al-Qaeda prisoners could have been abused.” In fact, preliminary investigations carried out shortly after the alleged killings by highly experienced and respected forensic analysts from Physicians for Human Rights established the presence of recently deceased human remains at Dasht-e Leili and suggested that they were the victims of homicide.
I was a human rights investigator in northwestern Afghanistan in February 2002. At the time, numerous witnesses spoke of seeing several trucks dumping what appeared to be human remains in Dasht-e Leili, while others told of detainees being held for days in overcrowded shipping containers without food, water, or medical care, and, in some instances, being shot while inside the containers.
It was also clear that U.S. personnel were serving with and advising Dostum during this period, but preliminary investigations failed to reveal the identities of these personnel or their chain of command. Later journalistic efforts suggested that U.S. Special Forces troops and CIA operatives served alongside Dostum during this period. CIA operative Mike Spann was killing during a firefight at Dostum’s Qala-i Jangi fortress in November 2001.
Dostum claims that no foreign journalists highlighted this episode. On the contrary, in English-language media alone, several highly respected journalists have recounted the allegations and explored the possibility that U.S. forces -- military and intelligence agencies -- either knew or should have known about the events.
In addition, as early as November 2001, and continually after that, several major international human rights organizations -- including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and most doggedly, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) – raised the alarm about the conditions of detainees held by Dostum’s forces.
Crucially, the International Committee of the Red Cross did not have access to the Taliban detainees at Sheberghan until December 10, 2001 -- and thus could not monitor their conditions during the period when the detainees died. This undermines Dostum’s claim that a massacre could not have occurred because the ICRC would have known about it. Need For Investigations
By June 2002, we were told that Dostum’s forces, which still constituted a serious military force in the area, had warned locals away from the site and would not allow any investigation. To my knowledge, this situation continues to this day, notwithstanding the expansion of NATO forces into northern Afghanistan.
On several occasions between 2002 and 2005, I personally raised the issue of the need for investigations into this and other possible serious human rights violations with high officials of the Afghan government, the United Nations mission to Afghanistan, and the U.S. government. The consistent call at these meetings was for (1) a public statement of political will to investigate and address the serious human rights violations that have occurred in Afghanistan over the past three decades, and (2) a demonstration of practical support for such an endeavor, for instance by deploying security around suspected mass-grave sites and facilitating the work of forensic investigators.
In each case, I was told quite plainly that such investigations would not be pursued because they were not politically expedient, and because the relevant actors would not and could not guarantee the security of any investigation. Thus, even when the UN agreed in principle to allow PHR to conduct investigations in the area, security conditions prevented them from doing so.
With U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement about an investigation, this situation might improve.
Dostum is correct in one regard: There is a highly politicized atmosphere surrounding the timing of the increased attention to this incident, and that is linked to President Hamid Karzai’s reinstatement of Dostum as the army chief of staff after he had been removed in disgrace last year. Karzai has also nominated as his vice presidential candidate Marshal Fahim, another Northern Alliance commander facing widespread allegations of serious human rights violations and war crimes. Ongoing Impunity
Many Afghans, who have repeatedly demanded truth and accountability for the three decades of atrocities they have endured, have told Amnesty International they are extremely disappointed by the presence of such figures in Karzai’s administration. The ongoing impunity of senior government officials has done much to erode public confidence in the Afghan government, something now readily acknowledged even by international militaries.
Obama’s call for an investigation of the November 2001 incidents should renew interest in the essential issue of accountability and transitional justice in Afghanistan. Fortunately, there already exists an excellent Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation, and Justice in Afghanistan, formulated by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission after significant consultation with a cross-section of the Afghan people.
This plan provides for a multiyear process of gathering information, considering national reconciliation, and, finally, if possible, providing accountability for the crimes of the past. The international community and the Afghan government have explicitly endorsed this plan as part of the Afghanistan Compact. But it is disappointing to note that neither has done much to implement the Action Plan so far. The Action Plan seeks to do exactly what Dostum urges: “to present facts in a balanced way in order to promote understanding, good will, and confidence among the deprived people of different groups that are now far from their government.”
General Dostum has bemoaned the increasing operations of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda after seven years of international nation building. It is time to ask: After seven years of appeasing warlords and human rights violators, isn’t it time for the Afghan government and its international supporters to try truth and accountability?Sam Zarifi is the Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL