Seven years ago, in 2002, I stood on the surface of a mass grave in northern Afghanistan that contained over 2000 bodies. There is evidence to support the claim that each and every death amounted to a murder, a war crime. I was standing close to the bodies of thousands of men who had died needlessly over a number of days, when they were in the process of being transported along a northern highway after the fighting had ended.
This was a journey involving several thousand passengers (roughly seven thousand, according to one local Afghan Commander interviewed for television). Their journey was from the holding centre at Kalai-Zeini, to their destination at Sheberghan Prison, from where they were to be sent home - unless the US special interrogators at Sheberghan Prison could identify any of them as Al-Qaeda operatives who had so far evaded capture. Maybe half of them got out of the journey alive; certainly half of them were buried in the mass grave under my feet.
"AFGHAN MASSACRE - CONVOY OF DEATH"
I visited Dasht-e-Leili in 2002, for the making of the television documentary "Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death" (directed by the Irish journalist and film-maker Jamie Doran, and first broadcast in November 2002). In early 2002, Jamie Doran had approached me in London and asked for a human rights/war crimes assessment of his findings to date, including: footage from the surface of the Dasht-e-Leili site, footage of prisoners in Sheberghan prison, filmed interviews with participants in/ witnesses to events up to and including the killing and burial of prisoners at Dasht-e-Leili (including an Afghan soldier's confession of guilt to murder).
Subsequently, in September 2002, I accompanied Jamie and his film crew to Afghanistan for site visits at the Dasht-e-Leili grave, and interviews in northern Afghanistan and Kabul (for example, with officials of the UN and the Afghan government). Some of the detailed filming of the surface of Dasht-e-Leili (human remains protruding, visible clothing and other personal items, spent cartridges from semi-automatic weapons, etc) was included in the final version of the film.
I also participated in the June 2002 meetings of the German Parliament and European Parliament that viewed a 10-minute video-short of Jamie Doran's film (not completed until a few months later). These meetings called for UN protection of the sites (but it never happened), and investigation by the US authorities in light of accusations against US special forces in relation to the incident, including possible individual criminal responsibility.
Last year I wrote to the US Congress (Rep. Waxman, in fact) regarding the relevance of the Dasht-e-Leili incident to other investigations of the House Oversight Committee presided over by Rep. Waxman. I was confident that Obama would win the Presidency, and that Congress would be given a green light to further and deepen its investigations.
Last month (11 July 2009), James Risen's article in the New York Times put President Obama under pressure to give an official account of what had occurred at Sheberghan Prison and at the mass-grave site of Dasht-e-Leile. The President instructed his aides to prepare a report for him: "So what I've asked my national security team to do is to collect the facts for me that are known, and we'll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all of the facts gathered up". But Obama's words left room for doubt about his resolve to order an official investigation - similar to the advice given to me in 2002 by a US military spokesman, that "there has not been an 'investigation' with a capital 'I'...", implying that the US military authorities preferred to keep their questions informal, unofficial, and off the public radar. So I wonder - will Obama prefer to hit the brakes once he's carried out his own in-house 'investigation', rather than order an 'Investigation' into these war crimes?
A STORY SO BIG THAT IT WILL NEVER GO AWAY
This story is so big that it will never go away. That was my view in 2001, and my view still. In fact, my view expressed in 2001 was that it will never go away, unless and until there is a proper investigation that holds the perpetrators to account - be they Afghan warlords and their soldiers, or US special forces and their superior officers who have tried time and again to cover up the alleged criminal responsibility of US soldiers at the time (the cover-up amounts to a separate and additional offence under US law). The story of what occurred is now common knowledge in Afghanistan and internationally, including the part of the story involving the cover-up at US Central Command, the Pentagon and elsewhere in the Bush Administration. It's just a story that's lacking an official investigation - it seems that the film-footage of bodily remains sticking out of the ground in a northern Afghan desert, the photographs of US soldiers at nearby Sheberghan Prison, the interviews with local witnesses, etc, just came out at the wrong time, too soon after 9/11, for the US authorities to care too much about the victims, never mind care about the strict requirements of US law.
TRAIL OF EVIDENCE
I am certain that the US military and other agencies have extensive files on the incident that support our case, but that are being suppressed. I have, of course, read the documents published by Physicians for Human Rights at the end of 2008, following PHR's successful Freedom Of Information requests - all of these continue to give a firmer foundation to our story, and calls for an official investigation by independent and impartial US authorities. PHR's excellent work in cataloguing the case since 2002, beginning with a part-excavation of the mass grave that corroborates much of Jamie Doran's filmed witnesses, is worth following via the special PHR blog that is updated regularly.
It's irrelevant to me whether responsibility for this mass murder lies with junior Afghan soldiers, or their superiors such as the 'Warlord' General Dostum - or, as alleged and evidenced, whether some criminal responsibility lies with some members of the US special forces who were on the ground at the time, and who had chain-of-command responsibility over many of Dostum's men. I saw a great deal of the evidence first-hand at Dasht-e-Leili, and was able to trace backwards through the chain of events that led me there. I know where the evidence points, and I can't change that. So I believe that the US President, as Commander-in-Chief, should also want to know where the evidence points.