As the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan draws to a close, it is my hope that fair-minded people will begin to reexamine the history of this long and bloody conflict. There are two especially prominent episodes from the opening stage of the war that deserve renewed attention due to their historical significance as well as their direct relationship to the unresolved issue of the Guantánamo Bay internment camp.
During the final week of November 2001, a total of around 5,000 unarmed Taliban prisoners of war were massacred in two closely related incidents near Mazar-e-Sharif. Several dozen survivors were among the earliest detainees sent to Guantánamo Bay. These massacres received widespread media coverage at the time but elicited minimal sympathy from an American public still deeply shaken by September 11. Reporter Robert Young Pelton spoke for many Americans when he said, “We could have wiped out every Talib on earth and no one would have cared.”
Now that the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has finally ended, the time has come for these events to be reevaluated dispassionately and for the issue of prisoners of war to be resolved once and for all.
During the summer and fall of 2001, I served as a Taliban infantryman in northern Afghanistan. In mid-November of that year, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was on the verge of collapse. Kabul and several other major cities had been overrun by the Northern Alliance, a warlord cartel described by journalist Robert Fisk as “a symbol of massacre, systematic rape, and pillage” that would form the nucleus of America’s collaborationist regime for the next two decades. Our commanders told us that the Taliban had begun to evacuate their forces from urban centers to protect civilians from dangers posed by 15,000-pound Daisy Cutters, Tomahawk cruise missiles, cluster bombs, and depleted uranium munitions. I saw the toll that some of these weapons took on Afghan civilians with my own eyes.
By mid-November, our division of about 8,000 mujahideen had been surrounded by the Northern Alliance in Kunduz. An agreement was made between our commanders and Northern Alliance warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who had recently subordinated his militia to the CIA. The agreement guaranteed us safe passage through Mazar-e-Sharif to Herat, near the Afghan border with Iran. From there, my understanding was that the Afghan mujahideen would return home, while foreign volunteers would evacuate to neighboring countries. In return, Dostum would be left to take control of the northeastern city of Kunduz without a fight.
The agreement stipulated that we would travel to Herat in a convoy of trucks with only our light weapons, and it was decided that the foreign volunteer brigade would go first. We were about one-third Arab, one-third Uzbek, and one-third Pakistani, with smaller numbers of other nationalities totaling a few hundred. The remaining mujahideen were primarily Afghans and were to follow the same route from Kunduz through Mazar-e-Sharif to Herat.
A few days earlier, thousands of miles away and unbeknownst to us, the following exchange had taken place at a Pentagon press briefing:
REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, you had mentioned earlier that the U.S. is not inclined to negotiate nor to accept prisoners. Could you just elaborate what you meant by “nor to accept prisoners”?
DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: We have only handfuls of people there. We don’t have jails, we don’t have guards, we don’t have people who — we’re not in the position to have people surrender to us. If people try to, we are declining. That is not what we’re there to do, is to begin accepting prisoners and impounding them in some way or making judgments. That’s for the Northern Alliance, and that’s for the tribes in the south to make their own judgments on that.
REPORTER: So they would be taken — you’re not suggesting they would be shot, in other words?
RUMSFELD: Oh, my goodness, no. You sound like Charlie. (laughter)
Once we were on the road, instead of permitting our convoy to pass as had been agreed, the CIA-led force insisted that we lay down our weapons before proceeding through Mazar-e-Sharif. After tense negotiations and a great deal of hesitation on our part, we complied. But instead of fulfilling their side of the agreement and letting us proceed, Dostum’s militiamen diverted our trucks to the Qala-e-Jangi fortress on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif and began to bind us with our own turbans. The CIA interrogators made it clear that if we did not talk to them, we would be killed:
CIA OFFICER MIKE SPANN: You believe in what you’re doing here that much, you’re willing to be killed here? How were you recruited to come here? Who brought you here? Hey! What’s your name? Hey! Who brought you here? Wake up! Who brought you here to Afghanistan? How did you get here? What? Are you Muslim? Put your head up. Don’t make me have to get them to hold your head up. …
CIA OFFICER DAVID TYSON: Mike!
SPANN: Yeah, he won’t talk to me.
TYSON: OK, all right. We explained what the deal is to him.
SPANN: I was explaining to the guy we just want to talk to him, find out what his story is.
TYSON: Well, he’s a Muslim. You know, the problem is he needs to decide if he wants to live or die, and die here. If he don’t want to die here, he’s gonna die here. … It’s his decision, man. We can only help the guys who want to talk to us. …
SPANN: Do you know the people here you’re working with are terrorists and killed other Muslims? There were several hundred Muslims killed in the bombing in New York City. Is that what the Quran teaches? I don’t think so. Are you going to talk to us?
TYSON: That’s all right, man. Gotta give him a chance. He got his chance.
Our Uzbek brothers were acutely aware of the likelihood they would be sent back to a country that Secretary of State Colin Powell described as “an important member of this coalition.” Political prisoners in Uzbekistan faced torture with cattle prods, asphyxiation with gas masks and plastic bags, dousing with freezing cold water, beatings with steel pipes and nail-studded wooden clubs, involuntary psychiatric treatment, electric shocks applied to the genitals, the removal of fingernails and toenails with pliers, the burning of body parts, rape, repeated kicks to the head, flogging the soles of the feet, forced labor in subzero temperatures, and being boiled alive.
When it became clear that we had been betrayed, some of the Uzbek mujahideen detained in the fortress spontaneously launched a desperate revolt that could have only resulted in a massacre, but as the poet al-Mutanabbi said: “I am drowning, so what do I have to fear from getting wet?”
As this began to unfold, the remainder of the convoy proceeded along the same route. They were stopped in the desert about five miles west of Kunduz and surrounded by U.S. Special Forces, along with their proxy militia. The convoy was then commandeered to a different fortress, known as Qala-e-Zeini, on the road between Mazar-e-Sharif and Sheberghan. Detainees were taken down from the trucks and tied up with their turbans. Survivor Abdul Rahman recalled seeing about 50 people buried alive; survivor Mohammad Yousuf Afghan recalled seeing more prisoners beaten to death and others drowned in pools of standing water. However, the vast majority were locked in metal shipping containers and left to die.
Each of the containers held 200 to 300 detainees. By the time they arrived at Sheberghan and the containers were opened, most of the detainees had suffocated. In some containers there were no survivors. One of the truck drivers recalled: “They opened the doors and the dead bodies spilled out like fish. All their clothes were ripped and wet.” The thousands of bodies were then buried in mass graves in the Dasht-e-Leili desert outside the city. Another witness said that some survivors were summarily executed at the burial site under the supervision of U.S. Special Forces.
A confidential U.N. memorandum shared with Newsweek concluded that evidence gathered at the site was “sufficient to justify a fully-fledged criminal investigation,” as the mass graves contained “bodies of Taliban POWs who died of suffocation during transfer from Kunduz to Sheberghan.” However, due to “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.”
As Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, said in a 2009 report: “Gravesites have been tampered with, evidence has been destroyed, and witnesses have been tortured and killed.” PHR researcher Nathaniel Raymond added, “Our repeated efforts to protect witnesses, secure evidence and get a full investigation have been met by the U.S. and its allies with buck-passing, delays and obstruction.”
Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban government’s ambassador to Pakistan, who was detained for three and a half years in Guantánamo Bay, later wrote that of some 8,000 Taliban fighters who surrendered, “only 3,000 were to survive captivity. I had been in Islamabad trying to secure their release, and talked to Dostum several times, and he had assured me that the prisoners would be well treated. I even went to the United Nations to inform them about the prisoners, as well as the Human Rights Commission and the Red Cross.”
Survivors of the twin massacres at Qala-e-Jangi and Dasht-e-Leili were initially detained together in a massively overcrowded prison in Sheberghan. Some would be killed by guards or die of medical neglect, starvation, or disease, but most would later be released. Several dozen others would be among the first planeloads of prisoners transported to Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo Bay.
In June 2006, Qala-e-Jangi survivor Yasser al-Zahrani, along with Ali al-Salami and Mani al-Utaybi, would be found hanging in their cells at Camp Delta, according to their autopsies. It later emerged that rags had been shoved down their throats. Their battered bodies were subsequently mutilated and returned to their families with their throats removed. In early 2009, Guantánamo detainees selected Qala-e-Jangi survivor Mohammad al-Hanashi as their representative and negotiator. Shortly thereafter, he was involuntarily committed to the Behavioral Health Unit, the camp mental hospital, and subsequently died on June 1, 2009, under dubious circumstances. Internal documents from the BHU dated June 1 and 2 were later described in a memo as “missing and unrecoverable for inclusion in the case file.” According to former detainee Mansoor Adayfi, what these four had in common was that they all played prominent roles in various forms of protest at Guantánamo, including mass hunger strikes. The same was true of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, who was sent to the BHU shortly before being transferred to Camp V, where he died in solitary confinement under similarly questionable circumstances in 2012, two years after he had been cleared for release.
The history of the Guantánamo Bay internment camp did not begin in January 2002 with the opening of Camp X-Ray. It began in November 2001 with the mass slaughter of Taliban detainees on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif. The CIA has yet to release its video footage of the massacre at Qala-e-Jangi and what led up to it, some of which I watched them film, nor has an exhaustive inquiry ever been conducted into the suspicious deaths at Guantánamo of Yasser al-Zahrani, Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi, Mohammad al-Hanashi, or Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif. There has also never been any satisfactory explanation for the death in custody of Guantánamo detainee Abdul Rahman al-Umari in 2007, nor of Awal Gul and Haji Naseem in 2011.
The conflict in Afghanistan will not be fully resolved until the issue of prisoners of war has been justly settled. All remaining detainees must be set free, and comprehensive independent investigations must be conducted into these massacres and suspicious deaths. As the 20-year American occupation of Afghanistan comes to an end, so too must the obscene mockery of justice at Guantánamo Bay.