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Controversy – Dasht-i-Leilli

Dasht-e-Leili Timeline

The name ‘Dasht-e-Leili’ brings with it an unavoidable sense of controversy owing to its close connection as the name of both a burial ground and a place of violence. In order to separate fact from fiction, an honest and full account of what happened and, more importantly, what did not happen to the men inside those unmarked graves is required. The families of those who were buried there have a right to know, and those who are in mass graves deserve, even after all these years, correct burials.  They also deserve, if needed, justice for the crimes committed against them. Over the years, the lack of a professional investigation has led to both the innocent being blamed and the guilty being protected as well as confusion about what really happened. This timeline will help to clarify the true nature and history of the events related to Dasht-e-Leili.

HISTORY OF DASHT E LEILI

Dasht-e-Leili is now tragically synonymous with death, having been used at least four different times as both a killing ground and a mass burial site. Although the western media began to discuss mass deaths and this region in late 2001, the dark history of this site begins a decade earlier.  As will be explained in more detail below, the area was first used in the of summer 1997 by Abdul Malik when his forces massacred hundreds (possibly thousands) of Taliban they had taken prisoner in May of that year. The victims were deliberately killed en masse. The second instance occurred in August 1998 when the Taliban massacred those people, mainly Hazaras, who had been taken prisoner in Mazar i Sharif. The prisoners had either died en-route or were killed there en masse. At this time, I was the only one to call for a United Nations investigation and welcomed the teams to Mazar. I personally took the human rights teams to the sites to uncover the truth about this tragedy at Dasht-e-Leili. The third tragedy occurred over a several month period between 1998-1999 when the Taliban, who were then in control of the region, executed many hundreds of people who they held in the Sheberghan prison. The fourth group buried at Dasht-e Leili occured when approximately 270 prisoners died in November 2001 as part of a mass movement of over 3,000 prisoners from Kunduz to the prison in Sheberghan. As will be explained in detail below, the prisoners that did not survive the transport were buried within view of the road as they had to be buried somewhere. No effort was made to hide this fact.

NEED FOR PROFESSIONAL INVESTIGATION INTO DEATHS

The one organization which has at least done some scientifically-based preliminary fact-finding, at grave sites in Northern Afghanistan is Physicians For Human Rights. These preliminary findings found where some of the war dead are buried but do not establish that a massacre took place.  Unfortunately neither the United Nations nor the Government of Afghanistan was prepared to complete the investigation which the Physicians for Human Rights started. In addition to their work on burial sites, Physicians for Human Rights have tried to establish whether the US administration covered up some of the facts regarding events in 2001. I know nothing of and would not have been involved in any such cover-up, which is a matter for the government of the United States. I have a long track record of facilitating investigations by the United Nations and others and am confident that the more facts come out regarding 2001, the more it will be clear that my men played an honorable role, both helping to liberate their country and trying to end the bloodshed by taking care of enemy prisoners in the most difficult of circumstances. I look forward to the day when the media gives due credit to the heroic and humane role of those Afghans and their American allies who risked their lives in the cause of freedom.

It is mportant to note is that in 2002 there were significant changes in territorial control of Dasht-e Leili when I relinquished control of the area to the United Nations. It was during this period that there were allegations of excavation or tampering with some gravesites and alleged removal of contents in 2006. In 2006 Dasht-e Leili was under the direct control of the United Nations, not me.

WORKING WITH THE UNITED STATES

I was and continue to be proud our work with the U.S. Special Forces and the U.S. Air Force in liberating our country. Without America’s decision to overthrow the Taliban and support indigenous forces we would still be under a brutal regime. I wish every American could see the emotional scene of thousands of Afghans cheering their liberation and welcoming Americans as brothers.

As I set about rebuilding a shattered country, I was happy to speak with journalists in 2001 and repeatedly pointed out my undivided agreement with America’s goals. I have always believed that freedom, equality and democracy are the future for Afghanistan. During the majority of these interviews I found the topic and approach to be quite different. Instead of reporting my vision for Afghanistan’s future or promoting women’s rights, for example, I found myself portrayed as a ‘brutal warlord’ who skinned people alive. Instead of focusing on the secular, advanced nature of the north during my command there, the media would invent stories about me eating half a dozen whole chickens in one sitting. Instead of focusing on the desperate need for foreign aid or even my repeated dire warnings about the resurgent Taliban, I was portrayed as warlord able to kill a man with my laugh.

These ridiculous stories soon evolved into allegations of massacre, infighting and war crimes.  While I was personally paying to feed over 3,000 prisoners in cramped conditions at the Sheberghan prison, Newsweek, the New York Times and filmmaker Jamie Doran began inventing a “Convoy of Death” fantasy. Jamie Doran was not only my guest, but spent an inordinate amount of time interviewing me about the future of Afghanistan. None of this appears in his homemade documentary. Instead a Taliban commander, anonymous Pashtun truck drivers, and other nameless ‘eyewitnesses’ spin fantastic stories of death and murder. His stories don’t even match the weather, numbers, locations or motivations of the time.

Doran film claimed ‘blood poured from the containers,’ but the bodies show no signs of gunshots or other puncture wounds.  Doran isn’t the only one to spread rumors about me. One of the most quoted anecdotes used in profiles about me comes from an excerpt in Ahmed Rashid’s book, The Taliban (page 56) claiming that he had seen the results of one of my tanks crushing a looter in Qali Jangi. Later he would admit that he never actually saw this happen and, in fact, called me a great leader.

The reality is that same tight relationship with U.S. military and intelligence created a irrefutable daily record of my activities, travels, locations, decisions and intent. Special Forces medics, intelligence officers, journalists, and myself were in the prison and documented the arrival, treatment and conditions. At no time did any prisoners mention mistreatment, massacres or the Convoy of Death or “Death Convoy.” The presence of over 3,000 prisoners fed and housed at my expense should be logical enough proof that, as per the surrender terms, we meant them no harm and despite the horrific false surrender at Qali Jangi, we still kept to our word. Indeed, a US Special Forces medic, who was later killed in Iraq, treated many of these prisoners in the Sheberghan alongside Afghan doctors.

I want the truth to be told and have created this site this to present my version of events. I’m tired of the lies and allegations. Therefore, from this point on, I will take accusations of massacre without proof as evidence of the constant efforts to marginalize the only formal surrender of the Taliban to me and the US military. As such, we will be formally asking publications and journalists to provide facts and evidence of their accusations and assumptions over the coming months. We will then ask those publications to reprint retractions. Then those that cannot provide evidence will be proven to be libelous by the appropriate jurisdiction. Penalties and damages will be given to a fund for those Afghans and Americans who died or were seriously injured in defeating the Taliban. In the interest of truth, we welcome any dispute, correction or supplemental addition to the facts mentioned here. Please submit any evidence and we will publish it here in an effort to get to the truth, and justice for the victims.

This timeline below has been created to set the record straight on any allegation that Afghan or U.S. soldiers massacred Taliban prisoners in December of 2001.

By General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief.

________________________________________________________________________

TIMELINE

May 1997 – After years of peace and prosperity under Dostum’s rule the Taliban took Mazar by bribing with his former commander, Abdul Malik Pahlawan. He wrongly believed that Dostum had ordered the murder of his brother and sought revenge. The people of Mazar rebelled against the Taliban and drove them out. Between May and July, the bodies of around 2,000 Taliban soldiers who were killed by Abdul Malik and his Shia followers were buried in or around Dasht-e-Leili. This resulted in a UN investigation of the massacre, which I facilitated.

August 8, 1998 – When the Taliban recaptured Mazar, in retaliation for the killing by Abdul Malik’s men, they conducted a six-day killing frenzy of Hazaras who are Shia’s.  The bodies from this second violent act represent the second group of remains buried in the Dasht-e-Leili area. The Taliban found numerous ways of killing their victims. There were reports that one method employed was to lock men in shipping containers in the summer heat and leaving them to die. The UN estimates that over 1200 innocent people were murdered this way.  Dostum called for a UN investigation of the massacre and personally took the teams to the site. The Taliban had waged a brutal war of extermination against the Hazaras. The Afghans, along with UN and human rights groups, did their best to appeal for an end to these multiple massacres but they were more focused on the activities of Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar. The Turkish government arranged for Dostum’s evacuation out of Afghanistan.

April 23, 2001 – Dostum returned to Afghanistan with 12 of his men to begin the war on the Taliban in earnest and open a western front.  Ahmed Shah Massoud was working with U.S and other intelligence agencies to fight the Taliban and kill Osama bin Laden.  Dostum continued to ask the United States for military and financial assistance for their fight against the Taliban and their foreign supporters, with their most critical items were horse feed and bullets.

 October 19, 2001 – A four-man CIA Special Activities Division team and a twelve man U.S. Special Forces unit (ODA 595) landed by helicopters at Dehi to support Dostum’s efforts and provide air support to defeat the Taliban.

Planning an attack in the Dariya Suf (photo at left)

November – While the SF ODA and their two US Air Force controllers called in air strikes to pulverize Taliban positions, Dostum’s men launched cavalry charges to push the Taliban to Mazar and then Kunduz.  Throughout this month, the main fighting too place in the north where the Taliban were not wanted or welcomed.  General Dostum also had a four-man CIA team consisting of Mike Spann, Dave Tyson, JR and Alex. The CIA activities are documented in a number of books written second hand (First In by Gary Schroen and Jawbreakerby Gary Bernsten). His activities, movements and command decisions with the DoD are documented in a number of first hand accounts including “The Legend of Heavy D” in National Geographic Magazine, a recent book entitled Horse SoldiersDoug Stanton as well as daily DoD briefings. At all times there were a number of Afghan, DoD and CIA witnesses to Dostum’s activities, movements and discussions as well as a CNN team lived with him for several weeks. It was their ability to work in a seamless, united manner that led to the defeat of the Taliban in three weeks.

November 6, 2001 – Mazar was abandoned by the Taliban, leaving behind hundreds of Pakistani fighters under Mullah Dadullah who refused to surrender.  US Lt Colonel Max Bowers decided to call in an airstrike killing most of the 300 or so Pakistanis. This accounts for the third set of remains buried in Dasht e Leili.

November 18 – 23, 2001 – Taliban Army Chief Mullah Faizal and Taliban Northern Zonal Chief Mullah Nuri negotiated a surrender of their fighters trapped in Kunduz. General Dostum lead the process and members of the CIA, US Special Forces and western media were present during this negotiation.

NUMBER OF SURRENDERED TALIBAN AND FOREIGN FIGHTERS

Exactly how many fighters surrendered or changed sides has never been fully agreed upon. A review of articles from that time show widely differing accounts and estimates of enemy fighters in Kunduz, including rumors of Pakistani airlifts mass escapes, massacres, mass drownings, Chechens commanders, and most importantly little mention of thousands of “Taliban” under the then Kunduz commander Amir Jan switching to the Northern Alliance. Speculations about numbers at the time include 3000 foreign fighters and 20,000 Taliban in Kunduz. One thing is true, so far there are no accurate numbers of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters who surrendered in Kunduz other than the men transported to Sheberghan prison. The vanquished Taliban find it in their favor to exaggerate the number of fighters. Taliban commander Amir Jan estimates he has personally counted 8,000 prisoners and that Dostum’s men. There are no corroborating sources to support ANY media estimate of prisoners, other than the careful list made out by the doctors at Sheberghan prison when the transported prisoners arrived.

PURPOSE OF SURRENDER AND MOTIVATION TO ENSURE A LASTING PEACE

General Dostum negotiated the surrender using a go--between named Shamsullah (Shams-ul-Haq “Shamuk” Naseri) and invited Mullahs Nuri and Faizal to Qali Jangi. The international media covered this meeting and international military forces were in attendance.  Three members of the CIA and the men of ODA 595 were present at Qali Jangi when Dostum and the two Talban commanders agreed that the Afghans would go home the Pakistanis would need confirmation from their village that they would not fight again, and the foreigners would be handed over to the United Nations. Mullah Dadullah, who was in charge of the foreign fighters, was not part of the surrender but chose to lead a covert plan to retake Mazar with Taliban in Balkh, Chimtal and Pashtun strongholds (although the media reported him as being part of the surrender).

November 24, 2001 – Early this morning, 460 foreign al Qaeda, Pakistani and Uzbek armed fighters appeared in 4 trucks at the gates of Mazar, heading west. They refused to surrender and only after U.S. Forces threatened airstrikes did they hand over their weapons to Tajik Commander Usted Atta Mohammed. Dostum was on his way out of Mazar eastward to Erganak (five miles outside Kunduz) to supervise the prearranged Taliban surrender and leave with ODA 595. After the Americans insisted that the prisoners could not be held at the nearby airfield Dostum and Usted Atta ordered them to Qali Jangi, accompanied by the Red Cross and the international media. An Uzbek prisoner blew himself up killing Nader Ali, General Dostum’s chief of police. Many of the prisoners had hidden grenades under their clothes using shoelaces to put the grenade in their crotch region. Realizing that this may be a false surrender and that the prisoners were still armed, the prisoners were hurriedly put in the basement of the pink colored schoolhouse that had also been designed as a bomb shelter.

November 25 – December 1, 2001 – Erganak – Taliban prisoners were loaded on open stake side Kamaz trucks for transport to a prison in Sheberghan. Preparations began to build kitchens, accommodations and security for the incoming prisoners while over 3,000 prisoners are transferred, registered, treated, fed and housed. Open Kamaz trucks are the only short-term option despite the frigid conditions and exhausted state of the prisoners.

Surrender at Erganak (photo at left)

November 25, 2001 – The prisoners in the basement of the pink schoolhouse are brought up until a group of Uzbeks detonate another grenade. Shortly thereafter, the prisoners riot, begin untying each other and kill CIA Special Activities Division officer Mike Spann. Their goal was to escape Qali Jangi and link up with Mullah Dadullah’s forces. Numerous prisoners escaped or were killed as Afghan and British soldiers battled to contain the foreign fighters during their armed uprising. These were not unarmed helpless prisoners. These seasoned fighters had a coordinated plan to retake the armory and escape, and rejoin the Taliban on the outskirts of Mazar. There was never an attempt to surrender by the fighters who were clearly visible and audible to the guards a few dozen yard away.

A number of journalists including Jamie Doran, Carlotta Gall (NY Times), Luke Harding (Guardian), Rahimullah Yusufzai, web sites like the World Socialist Web Site, and other western media outlets began to describe this battle as a massacre. A number of the same journalists shift their focus on massacre to U.S. Soldiers, British SBS soldiers and then to prisoners.  After five years of Taliban massacring Afghans, and their attempt to murder their captors the media seemed eager to potray a brutal lie and death battle to contain suicidal jihadis as a massacre.

It is very important to understand that there were around 120 guards attacked by over 460 prisoners. Many Northern Alliance soldiers died or were injured during this episode. Specifically, approximately 65 Jumbesh and Hizb-I wahdate and Harakt soldiers died fighting the Taliban. At no time did any prisoner attempt to surrender. Even when the fighting subsided, the 86 men who remained in the basement murdered an elderly Red Cross worker sent down to look for wounded survivors.

Yemeni, Russian, American, Saudi, Sudanese and other al Qaeda survivors from the basement of the pink house (photo at right)

During the entire Qali Jangi event, Dostum and the U.S. Special Forces team assigned to him were in Erganak. The CIA were housed in the Turkish School in Mazar and the operational activity was being handled by Col Max Bowers and his “C” team, a headquarters team that coordinates the activity of “A” teams.

Despite the ongoing battle at the fort, we still treated the surrendering prisoners at Erganak with respect and in accordance with Afghan tradition.

Qala Zaini – Commander Kamal Khan, Dostum’s head of security, concerned that the armed prisoners would escape or join their fellow prisoners currently fighting in Qali Jangi, arranged for prisoners to be taken off the open trucks and loaded into shipping containers in a large mud walled caravanserai just outside Mazar i Sharif. The rear doors of the containers were left open with chains securing the draw bolts. The weather that evening was below freezing. The transfer began in the early hours of the morning. It was in the evening that the idea of using enclosed containers were put into effect by Dostum’s head of security. The logic was simple. More trucks, enclosed from the weather and the ability to prevent the prisoners from escaping or attacking their guards. Pashtun truck drivers and their rigs were pressed into service and that it was at this time in Qali Zaini that the stories of massacres first emerged.

U.S. Special Forces and Air Force soldiers at Qala Zaini (photo at left)

During this evening transport of approximately 120 miles or three hours, a group of prisoners also died for a variety of reasons. During subsequent transports our doctors carefully documented incoming prisoners for name, place of origin and noted the deaths. It is important to note that these deaths were neither intentional nor a direct result of ill will. Our doctors estimate that number to be around 270 out of the 3,00o+ that were transported from Erganak on both open and closed trucks.  The bodies were separated and then later buried at Dasht e Leli, making up the fourth group buried there in the last decade.  Jumbesh fully admits that conditions were hostile, imperfect and the Red Cross, UN or other agencies had no interest in providing support, help or even oversight.

November 27, 2001 – Late in the evening, Dostum returned to Khoda Barq near Qali Jangi. It is important to note that the two captured Taliban mullahs (Nuri and Faizal) were staying as guests of Dostum in the same complex, in accordance with Afghan hospitality.

November 28, 2001 – Dostum took the two Taliban Mullahs to show them the devastation of Qali Jangi (photo at right) and he asked them to call up the remaining survivors to surrender.  Many journalists were there for this moment. They refused.

Dostum asks Mullah Nuri to entreat the al Qaeda members to surrender (photo below)

December 1, 2001

The prisoners did not surrender and finally after attempts to get them out of the basement, threats, fire, water and starvation took its effect 86 foreign fighters emerged including the American Taliban, John Walker Lindh.

During the day, General Dostum and a CNN crew visit the Sheberghan prison. The prison is not prepared to handle thousands of prisoners and Dostum asks for the help of the United Nations in feeding and treating the prisoners. No help arrives in the next few days and Dostum continues to pay for the feeding and care of the prisoners himself. The main complaint at the prison is overcrowding and lack of water. Overcrowding cannot be addressed but more clean water is brought in and kitchen facilities are prepared. Journalists walk among the prisoners and there is no mention of a massacre.

Taliban Prisoners in Sheberghan (photo at right)

That evening, the remaining 86 prisoners are taken from Qali Jangi to Sheberghan prison or hospital, depending on their injuries. During the transport, the trucks are stopped in the town of Sheberghan so that the CNN crew can interview the prisoners there.

A few of the 86 Taliban prisoners being transported Qali Jangi and Sheberghan are filmed by CNN in Sheberghan (photo at left)

The prisoners had been subjected to over a month of excessive physical trauma including continuous bombing, deprivation of food, sleep, cholera, infectious diseases, lack of warm clothing, shelter and medicine as well as repeated fleeing on foot. Many suffered from horrendous wounds, exposure due to the low winter temperatures.

Around midnight on December 1st and early morning on the 2nd a CNN crew finds Johnny Walker Lindh in the Sheberghan hospital. He is taking into US military custody.

Taliban prisoner being treated by Special Forces medic and doctors at Sheberghan prison. (photo at right)

December 2, 2001

Dostum meets with Mohaqiq and Atta to discuss plans for the surrender of the thousands of remaining Taliban outside of Mazar.  Dostum’s advisors, Said Norullah and Faizullah Zaki, hold a press conference in Mazar. Highlights from the press conference are:

  • There were 84 (later this number is changed to 86) prisoners in the bunker. The Talib prisoners resisted until the end but were finally forced to surrender as a result of the water being pored down in the bunker. They were taken to a new prison, given aid in Sheberghan and are currently being identified.
  • The prisoners had weapon s hidden and were not searched since they had signed a surrender agreement. The Afghans trusted that they would abide by the agreement in accordance with their tradition. They were not striped due to human rights agreements.
  • After the Talibs fled Mazar, they moved to the Pashtun are of Balkh. There are approximately 80 with Mullah Dadullah and maybe 300 in another group. Estimates of up to 3000 were used for operational planning.
  • Balkh remains a problem. The main policy is to request surrender and not to fight, but to persuade commanders and elders of Talibs to surrender.  General Dostum spent the following weeks negotiating surrenders successfully.

January 2002 – A number of foreign and Afghan prisoners were removed from Shibergan by the U.S military for transport to Cuba for incarceration and further interrogation. Two of these men included Mullah Nuri and Faizal, which I felt was against the spirit of the surrender.  This decision helped to increase dissatisfaction amongst the local Taliban supporters who approached the media with stories of massacres, mistreatment and abuse. The stories lacked any form of proof.

Meanwhile a power struggle emerged between Dostum and the Tajik forces of Atta Mohammad, a junior commander assigned an ODA by the US DoD and State to “balance” ethnic power in the region. The CIA’s main support had been with the Panjshiri Tajiks and Pakistan based Pashtun tribes in the border areas. Due to Dostum’s previous affiliation with the Soviet government in Afghanistan the US and the CIA had always viewed him as the enemy. It took some convincing by knowledgeable Americans to convince the agency to provide support to his troops.

February 2002 – Physicians for Human Rights conducts a preliminary investigation of multiple mass grave sites around Northern Afghanistan, with the support of Dostum.

Early 2002 – In the efforts to shape a new Afghan government, Dostum fights for the rights of the ethnic minorities. The Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmen, Aimak, Tajiks and Pashtuns of the north have long been given second position to the Pashtun majority of the south. The very forces that have brought freedom to Afghanistan were being deliberately marginalized in both power sharing and by State Department actions who referred to them as “warlords” even though they fought side by side with the US just like Karzai and Gul Agha Sherzai. Instead of defending the one man, one vote promise power was handed to special interest groups.

The Panjshiri Tajiks, a tiny tribal minority who fought for years under Massoud, were given overwhelming control over the government along with a number of expat communist Afghans. This began to sow the seeds of discontent, with a concurrent disinformation campaign that usually climaxed before elections continues. The stories of convoys of death resurfaced at this time. Instead of the concerned parties conducting the investigation they constantly threaten, they once again stuck to unfounded allegations and exaggerations, making their case that the warlords are bad for the country.

May 2002 – PHR, facilitated by UNAMA, visited the site and found 15 bodies that they determine died of asphyxiation based on three bodies. This preliminary investigation was fully supported by the authorities in Mazar and Sheberghan. In 2002, Dostum returned control of Dasht-e-Leili over to the United Nations.

November 2002 – A cable was released from State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research quoting stories with estimates generated by PHR estimate that up to 2000 Afghans may have died. Although much “evidence” is referred to even documents released through FOIA show that the three main articles spurred by PHR actions are behind the unfounded, selective and malicious allegations of a massacre.

2004 First Presidential Election – General Dostum ran for office of President and as he predicted he earned 10% of the popular vote (over one million votes) as leader of a political party and someone with a clear history of bringing reconciliation, women’s rights, progress, peace and stability. Despite this positive proof of popular support, the State Department and the western media repeat accusations and narratives of “vicious and brutal warlord” marginalizing the democratic influence and support of the northern minorities.

December 15, 2008 – The UN official has said the organization is committed to help Afghan authorities preserve Dasht-e Leili in order to protect evidence of crimes committed over the past three decades of war in the country.

2009 Second Presidential Election – In an effort to bring all Afghans together and in direct challenge to the U.S. policy of marginalizing respected ethnic leaders, President Karzai asked for Dostum’s help. In exchange for clear commitments on change, the North deliver 45% of his accepted votes enabling Karzai to win the election.  Once again the north is a legitimate and powerful force for stability, reconciliation and democracy. Despite this, the now eight-year-old “massacre” stories reappear in the New York Times just before the election, yet no new information is brought forward.  FOIA obtained Proof appears to be State Dept comments on the media coverage. General Dostum insists that a proper investigation must be conducted. PHR insists they are afraid of their security even though Dostum has no control of the site.

January 2010 – General Dostum was reappointed as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief of the Afghan National Army.

Page last updated on February 1, 2010 at 3:46 pm