America’s Srebrenica

Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio commentator, has likened the abusive and humiliating treatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, contractors, and CIA personnel to “a college fraternity prank” (New York Times, 6 May 2004). Anyone with a grain of empathy who has seen images of the degradation inflicted on hapless Iraqi men can only be appalled by the comment. In a sense, however, Limbaugh has a point. The brutal mistreatment at Abu Ghraib prison is small potatoes, compared to what appears to have been a U.S.-sponsored atrocity — the mass murder of thousands of prisoners of war — in Afghanistan less than three years ago.

After the surrender of the fortress of Kunduz, at the tail end of the Afghan war in November 2001, hundreds of Taliban prisoners — “young men who had expected the protection of the Geneva conventions” after surrendering to U.S. and U.S.-backed forces — “instead died horribly” at the hands of the U.S.’s Northern Alliance surrogates, either by suffocation in the container trucks used to transport them towards the Shebarghan prison, or by outright execution in killings fields around Shebarghan.

So wrote Jamie Doran, producer of a television documentary titled Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, in the respected French journal Le Monde diplomatique (September 2002). Thousands more prisoners were still missing, according to Doran. “A few may have escaped … But according to to a number of eyewitnesses found during a six-month investigation, most lie [buried] in the sand” at Dasht-e Leili, a site only ten minutes’ drive from Shebarghan.

Doran went further still. He claimed that U.S. soldiers were present when the containers were opened, and ordered the destruction of the ghastly evidence inside. “When the containers were finally opened, a mess of urine, blood, faeces, vomit and rotting flesh was all that remained … As the containers were lined up outside the prison, a [U.S.] soldier accompanying the convoy was present when the prison commanders received orders to dispose of the evidence quickly.” He cites witness testimony to the effect that “In each container maybe 150-160 [prisoners] had been killed. … The Americans told the Shebarghan people to get them outside the city before they were filmed by satellite.”

A key question is who, precisely, was in charge at Shebarghan. There is strong prima facie evidence that the U.S. was in fact in control — at least in the sense that Israeli forces were directing events when they ushered their Christian Phalangist allies into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Newsweek’s detailed investigation into the Afghan atrocities (“The Death Convoy of Afghanistan,” 26 August 2002) stated straightforwardly that “American forces were working intimately with ‘allies’ who committed what could well qualify as war crimes.”

Witnesses to the grim events also alleged that “600 Taliban PoWs who survived the containers’ shipment to the Shebarghan prison … were taken to a spot in the desert and executed in the presence of about 30 to 40 U.S. special forces soldiers” (The Globe and Mail, 19 December 2002). Other U.S. soldiers are said to have involved themselves directly and enthusiastically in the “dirty work” of prisoner torture and the disposal of corpses. “The Americans did whatever they wanted,” stated one Afghan witness. “We had no power to stop them. Everything was under the control of the American commander.”

These allegations, if founded, suggest that what happened near Shebarghan was of a similar character and order of magnitude as the Serbian slaughter of 7,000 Bosnian men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995. But no official inquiry has yet been launched.

An integral part of any such inquiry ought to be the contemporaneous statements of U.S. officials, notably Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who in the waning days of the Afghan invasion appeared to be cheerleading for the slaughter of prisoners. Rumsfeld originally announced that the U.S. was “not inclined to negotiate surrenders.” He later “clarified” his statement by claiming that while Afghan Taliban should be allowed out of the net that was then closing around Kunduz, no such treatment could be accorded to foreign fighters: “My hope is that they will either be killed or taken prisoner.” In the end, Rumsfeld had the best of both worlds. It appears that thousands of men were first taken prisoner and then killed.

Now that U.S. abuses and atrocities against Iraqi prisoners — up to and including murder — have captured world headlines, there is no excuse for not investigating alleged crimes that, although they are receding into history, may have been incomparably worse.

ADAM JONES, Ph.D., is a Canadian professor of international studies at the CIDE think-tank in Mexico City. He is editor of a new volume, Genocide, War Crimes & the West: History and Complicity (Zed Books, 2004), from which this article is adapted.