Fatal errors that led to massacre
Source Dave Anderson
Date 01/12/01/00:48

from London's Guardian...
Fatal errors that led to massacre
Guardian reveals blunders by US
Luke Harding in Mazar-i-Sharif, Simon Tisdall in Washington, Nicholas Watt and Richard Norton-Taylor
Friday November 30 2001
The Guardian

A single, horrific, atrocity can provide the defining moment in a war. America is still facing demands to apologise for the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and the remains of charred Iraqi soldiers on the Mutla ridge outside Kuwait were a chilling illustration of Washington's overwhelming firepower in the Gulf war.

As the net tightened around the Taliban leadership yesterday, questions were being asked about whether the bloody end to this week's prison siege at the 19th-century Qala-i-Jhangi fort outside the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif will be the defining moment of the Afghan war. Pictures of aid workers picking their way through the corpses of Taliban prisoners killed by a combination of Northern Alliance fighters and American bombings, have caused revulsion around the world. At least 175 prisoners were killed; that is the number of bodies recovered so far by the Red Cross.

As pressure grows on Britain and the US to hold an inquiry into the killings, the Guardian has pieced together a detailed account of this week's events. This suggests that from the very first, when Taliban soldiers fell into the hands of the alliance after the fall of Kunduz, a series of catastrophic errors were made.

In an interview with the Guardian yesterday, the anti-Taliban commander who negotiated the surrender said that things had gone wrong largely because of American miscalculation. Amir Jan, a Pashtun commander who defected to the anti-Taliban forces earlier this year, said that the foreign Taliban fighters from Kunduz - mainly Arabs, Pakistanis and men from Uzbekistan - were never supposed to go for their formal surrender to Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan's main northern city.

The foreigners were meant to surrender at Erganak, a mountainous frontline position 12 miles west of Kunduz. Instead, they travelled across the desert through the night and arrived on the outskirts of Mazar, in a wilderness of desert and telegraph poles, at 3am last Saturday.

Mullah Faizal, the Taliban's commander at Kunduz, had told the foreign fighters to give up their weapons - but failed to tell them that they would then be taken into custody, it emerged from Amir Jan's account: "The foreigners thought that after surrendering to the Northern Alliance they would be free," he said. "They didn't think they would be put in jail."

While US soldiers dressed in desert khaki set up satellite links, soldiers loyal to the alliance warlord Rashid Dostam took up attack positions. After three to four hours' negotiation, the Taliban fighters agreed to surrender again - but only to Amir Jan, whom they trusted because of his Pashtun roots and Taliban history. General Dostam's militia then began disarming the Taliban fighters and piling their weapons into a green lorry.

Gen Dostam had arranged to take the prisoners to Mazar-i-Sharif's large Soviet-built airfield, but American special forces vetoed the plan, saying that the runway could be needed for military operations, Amir Jan revealed.

Heavy weaponry

Instead, Gen Dostam would take the prisoners to his personal fortress on the muddy outskirts of Mazar - the Qala-i-Jhangi. Over the previous two weeks several American officers had secretly spent many hours in the compound. They knew it was full of heavy weaponry.

Nonetheless, they agreed with the impromptu Dostam scheme. By mid-afternoon, the prisoners had been piled into five trucks. Said Kamal, Gen Dostam's head of security, arranged for prisoners in the first three trucks to be body searched. But with dusk approaching, the convoy set off with the last two trucks not searched. This proved to be disastrous.

While Gen Dostam left with the bulk of his army towards Kunduz, the convoy rolled the other way into the Qala-i-Jhangi, where a comparatively small number of guards had been left behind. Nader Ali, Gen Dostam's chief of police, tried again tosearch the prisoners soon after they arrived in late afternoon. One Taliban fighter about to be frisked detonated a hidden grenade killing himself, Ali and another Dostam aide.

While the dying Ali was carried away, soldiers then bundled the Taliban fighters into the stable area to the north of the compound. The search was abandoned.

That night eight of the fighters blew themselves up in a storage room in the prisoners' compound, Amir Jan said. It soon became clear that a large minority of the Taliban were still armed with grenades. "After that I decided they were hardliners, that they were dangerous," the Pashtun commander added. "We agreed it would be better to tie up their hands and put them in the basement."

Next morning the guards prepared to implement this new order. At the same time Simon Brooks, head of the International Committee for the Red Cross in northern Afghanistan, swept into the Qala-i-Jhangi in his white Red Cross vehicle. He was looking for assurances from Said Kamal, the Dostam security chief, that the prisoners would be treated humanely. The Red Cross also wanted to register the prisoners' names and get messages for their families. Mr Brooks was not the only person interested in the Arab, Pakistani and Chechen detainees.

Two CIA agents, Johnny "Mike" Spann and "Dave", had also been instructed to screen the Taliban fighters for possible links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organisation. From a distance Dave looked Afghan. He even spoke Uzbek, the language of Gen Dostam's soldiers, and wore a salwar kameez beneath a long coat. But his square-cropped haircut gave the game away, indicating he was American.

Two television crews - from Reuters and the German station ARD - had also turned up at the fort. They were in the prisoners' compound, together with Dave and Mike, who had begun interviewing suspects.

At 11.25am the Taliban fighters were marched to the central grassy compound of their mini-citadel. The guards tied up the first eight prisoners, Amir Jan said. "The prisoners suspected they were about to be shot. They attacked one of the guards and grabbed his gun," he added. The foreign fighters also assumed that the television journalists were American soldiers who had come to film their execution.

Another prisoner grabbed Mike and set off a grenade, blowing him up. This conflicts with the CIA account of his death which says that he was shot.


All hell then broke loose: the prisoners shot dead five guards and grabbed their weapons, while the journalists ran for cover. Dave managed to escape only by shooting dead at least one Taliban prisoner with his pistol. A firefight blew up between the prisoners, now in charge of their own fortified area, and soldiers sitting in Gen Dostam's headquarters building 300 metres away, down a line of trees.

"Dave managed to reach the rooftop [of Dostam's HQ] about 15 minutes after fighting broke out," Simon Brooks of the Red Cross said yesterday. "One of the Taliban who had obviously been wired with explosives simply grabbed the other American and the bomb detonated."

"I met Dave in the building. He was absolutely completely shocked and really quite scared. I can now understand why: he witnessed his friend being blown up. He had managed to shoot his way out and run 150 metres out of the building."

Soon the firefight had developed into a battle, as the Taliban prisoners broke into the arms depot and helped themselves to mortars and rocket launchers. From the rooftop, Dave borrowed a satellite phone from the German TV crew and phoned the American embassy in Uzbekistan.

"We have lost control of the situation. Send in helicopters and troops," he said.

The call appeared to work. As the Red Cross vehicle blazed in the car park, and Mr Brooks slithered down the mud battlements to safety, the Pentagon prepared to send in the air force. Most of the eight prisoners who had been tied up when the battle broke out were shot dead in the early minutes; the others were able to take cover.

At 3.30pm the jets sent by the Pentagon fired nine or 10 missiles directly into the Taliban's positions. All of them hit their target - apart from the last one, which sank into a field more than 1km away. In the confusion, a small group of at least 10 prisoners escaped.

The following day the remaining Taliban, some armed with rocket launchers, held out as B-52 bombers flew repeatedly overhead. Alarmed by the resilience of the Taliban fighters, further special forces arrived at the base on Tuesday. They reportedly advised the alliance to flush out the remaining Taliban by pouring oil into the basement and setting fire to it. It took a tank and an intensification of bombings from the air to finish them off.

Confident that the way was clear, the alliance regained control of the fortress on Wednesday. But on Thursday it emerged that a lone Talib was still holed up in a basement, surviving on horse meat.

High above the lone survivor, the imposing figure of Gen Dostam toured the fortress where the full horror of the siege was on display. An Associated Press photographer saw the bodies of up to 50 Taliban fighters whose hands had been bound by scarves, laid out in a field in the southern part of the fort. The photographer watched as alliance fighters cut the scarves from the hands of some of the corpses; at least one picked gold fillings from a corpse.

As Washington tried to wash its hands of the episode, saying that the alliance was responsible for the prisoners, human rights lawyers warned that the Geneva convention may have been breached on two counts: the degrading treatment of the Taliban, when they were tied up, and the huge firepower directed at them by US warplanes.

On the first count, article 13 of the convention says: "Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated." On the second count, the convention permits the use of force against prisoners. But it says that this must be proportionate.

Christopher Greenwood, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and joint editor of International Law Reports, said that killing people with hands tied behind their backs was illegal. "If it was heavy-handed overreaction, it was illegal", he said.

There were also questions about the conduct of the two CIA officers. Adam Roberts, professor of international relations at Oxford University and an authority on the laws of war, described their conduct as "incredibly stupid and unprofessional".

Angered by the death of Spann - the first American known to have died in the conflict - the director of the CIA, George Tenet, accused the Taliban of premeditated murder.

"Their prison uprising - which had murder as its goal - claimed many lives, among them that of a very brave American," he said of Spann, who worked in the directorate of operations, which analysts says is involved in "paramilitary" activities.

As the final bodies are cleared, the battle has now moved to Britain and America, whose governments have rejected calls by Amnesty International for an inquiry. Amnesty said yesterday that this raised questions about their commitment to the rule of law.

A head of steam is unlikely to build up around this issue, however. At his weekly appearance in the Commons this week, Tony Blair faced only one question about Afghanistan and that was about Marjan, the one-eyed lion at Kabul zoo.

Why? Amnesty's 10 questions

* Why were the Taliban not properly disarmed?

* Was the response of the detaining powers proportionate? Was only minimum force used, as required by the Geneva convention?

* Who ordered planes in and why?

* Could this situation have been contained without such use of force?

* Were those who were killed still bound?

* Did summary executions take place?

* Were people deliberately left in harm's way?

* Are those who desecrated bodies to be held responsible?

* Are summary executions still taking place in Afghanistan?

* Are there serious shortcomings in the holding of prisoners in Afghanistan? Is the alliance able to perform this role?

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited

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