- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
April 07, 2004
By Edward Herman
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
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
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
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,
---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
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
---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
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
---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.
Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
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