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Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death

Christopher Deliso | 31.07.2004 18:44 | Analysis | Oxford | World

In November 2001, near the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, a major battle was raging between the Northern Alliance forces of Rashid Dostum and the suddenly vulnerable Taliban. Following the battle, thousands of the latter surrendered, "under assurances that they would not be harmed." However, due to a complex series of events, this was not to be. Now, up to 3,000 murdered Taliban prisoners lie in an unmarked mass grave in a lonely stretch of Afghan desert, according to Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, a compelling new documentary from veteran BBC journalist and filmmaker Jamie Doran.

An Investigation with Ominous Implications

The convergence of two events – the Pentagon's announcement of new investigations into prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq, and increased U.S. pressure on Serbia over fugitives suspected of war crimes in Srebrenica and elsewhere – make for a neatly ironic introduction to Convoy of Death, a movie which unfortunately more than lives up to its name.

The documentary accuses the Pentagon of a high-level cover-up of American complicity in the prisoner deaths. The film's painstaking (and very brave) researchers make a very plausible case for a mass slaughter of prisoners, one that was personally overseen by American troops. However, Pentagon representatives denied that any such a massacre ever took place and refused to be interviewed for the film.

At least in the beginning, they seem to have banked on the likelihood that the tale would never be told; after all, this is faraway and forbidding Afghanistan we're talking about. As one unnamed insider told the filmmakers, "you have to understand, there are folk in here who would rather that the whole story go away." But thanks to some activist work (European Union bigwigs were treated to a special pre-showing that resulted in diplomatic pressure on Kabul) and an exhaustive series of interviews with Afghans present at the time (soldiers, truck drivers, prisoners and more) and Northern Alliance commanders (including Dostum himself), as well as live footage from the relevant battles, prisons, and mass graves, we are left with a case that if not entirely unassailable comes pretty damn close.

A Focus on Justice

The film's major point is that, if war crimes did indeed take place in Afghanistan under the watchful eye of the American military, then an international investigation and tribunal should be undertaken to bring the perpetrators to justice. This thesis seems to presuppose that the audience will necessarily agree with such a prescription, though the idea of international tribunals – in both theory and practice – is by no means a universally accepted one.

Nowhere, however, is the full weightiness of this subject broached; the major premise is accepted as a given and mere technicalities (a warlord culture, the difficulties of witness protection, etc.) are all that's left up for discussion. And so the film suffers a bit from a lingering attitude of pious parochialism. But not too much: whatever one's views on international justice may be, most people's sense of personal morality will be affronted by Convoy of Death. And that is exactly how the filmmakers planned it, what with the eerie Afghan music, slow-motion cameras locked on to the searching, vacant eyes of the prisoners, trails of blood and finally the piles of bleached bones in the swirling desert sands.

Running Commentary

In addition to the anonymous Afghan masses interviewed, the producers get some color commentary from various informed individuals who weigh in from time to time during the narrative. A pivotal figure, human rights lawyer Andrew McEntee, comes across as a man determined to see justice done and the case reopened on an international level. Robert Fox of the International Institute for Strategic Studies offers some searing criticisms of not only Dostum but of the American failure of leadership. As for Dostum, at times it's hard to tell the Afghan godfather from Marlon Brando, the way he threatens in such a polite way to rape and pillage and burn whole villages down. But for Antiwar.com readers, the favorite special guest of all is sure to be none other than Richard N. Perle.

Perle: A Missed Opportunity

Several times during the film we are reminded that the Pentagon would not grant interviews or reply to any of the producers' questions. Considering that Perle is introduced merely as a "former Assistant Secretary of Defense," should we conclude that the filmmakers considered him to be an adequate substitute – and nothing more? Considering that no other aspect of his storied career is mentioned, it unfortunately seems that this is the case. Yet since this leading hawk has been a lightning rod for criticism in so many different endeavors, it seems that the film erred in not exploiting this angle as much as it could have.

This is one of the few problematic aspects of Convoy of Death. After all, here you have one of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for war in the whole neocon camp, a man who is overwhelmingly sure that the American way does not involve mass executions and torture – and that fighting wars is in fact the best way to make sure this pacific disposition spreads the world over. And, to top it all off, Perle is someone who has been involved in a hornet's nest of controversy over the past couple of years, due first of all to a Seymour Hersh exposé that cost him his leadership of the Defense Policy Board. We might assume that Perle was interviewed before the scandals broke, but even in this case, it would be nice to have that information laid out in the film.

Of course, considering the producers' need to stay tightly focused on their topic, it would have been impossible to delve deeply into the neocon mind, Perle's proclivities, or the recent history of the war party. However, how a documentary can be about the Pentagon's cover-up of prisoner atrocities and at the same time quote Richard Perle, without at least mentioning his formidable role in the war effort, is puzzling.
Yet since there is no mention of the neocons, or indeed any biographical info on Perle at all, one has to wonder why he was chosen to appear in the film. Was it merely, as seems plausible, because the Pentagon wouldn't talk and he was seen as the next best thing, "former Pentagon?" Or, was he selected because, mistakenly or not, the producers felt he was a "respected" figure whose words carry great weight? If so, then it would seem a bit of a slight to the audience, if in fact the film was intended for a more informed audience than, say, Michael Moore's.

Other Problems: Temporal Identifications

There are other small problems too. Several dates that might assume significance retrospectively, and therefore increase the film's historic value, are not given. For example, we don't know when Perle and most of the others were interviewed, or if he was interviewed more than once. A lot of external events, from wars right through to scandals, have had a considerable effect, not only on the moods of the protagonists involved, but on the very stakes for which they are playing. If this film intends (as seems quite clear) to be trying to raise the stakes yet further, it owes its viewers a more detailed timeline of external events as well as vital dates for interviews conducted for the film.
Similarly, we are also told that several witnesses were beaten, killed or disappeared just before the film came out, though they don't say when that is precisely. At one point Doran also mentions the Pentagon speaking of an internal inquiry "in June," but does not state the year. All in all, the film would benefit from more specific and frequently stated datelines, as the narrative it recounts is somewhat complex. Besides, its value as a historical source is of course dependent on dates of not only events but of interviews, edits, and external events as well.

However, these minor flaws should not deter anyone from watching what is truly a horrifically fascinating – and important – film.

Some Incredible Footage

The film's live footage of events in the Mazar-i-Sharif area of Northern Afghanistan in November 2001 is one of its major selling points. The Afghan fighters look sporting in their drab, thick winter jackets and Muslim prayer hats, an adventurous combo which could, one presumes, become all the rage on American college campuses this fall if the film gets a wide enough showing.

All kidding aside, the documentary's footage is deadly serious. Scores of bloodied bodies heaped in the craters of demolished buildings show war in all of its unglamorous misery. Taliban prisoners, just young men who wound up on the wrong side of a brawl between warlords, are shown with their hands bound behind their backs, marched off into an open enclosure together with none other than John Walker Lindh – the famous "American Taliban." The film shows real footage of CIA agents talking to Lindh, who is shown kneeling on a blanket, head down, in what could be either a pre- or post-crucifixion pose. (Their extraordinary utterances were partially transcribed by Newsweek long ago.)

Only an hour after that video was shot, the producers inform us, CIA agent Mike Spann was dead in a prison uprising. Northern Alliance soldiers interviewed tell of how it was started by Taliban prisoners grabbing guns and grenades and basically trying to cause as much mayhem as possible. Exciting and chaotic battle footage follows, courtesy of the excessively courageous reporter Najibullah Quraishi, who was almost one of 17 people killed by a Taliban mortar launched while filming. At one point during the footage, with explosions and gun shots all around, an American voice is heard saying, "the chopper that's coming in wants to land south." Up to that point, the film reminds us, coalition partners Great Britain had been denying that their Special Forces soldiers were in Afghanistan. But SAS officers are clearly visible.

The Events

The film's narrative is complex. Briefly we can say the following: in November 2001, with the Northern Alliance rolling down the country towards Kabul, a meeting was arranged between Dostum, the regional Taliban commander, and the American-British Special Forces present in order to expedite the surrender of over 7,000 Taliban troops. According to the agreement, the local Afghan Taliban members would be allowed to go home, whereas the foreign fighters would be turned over to the UN (Dostum is shown on tape actually announcing this to the captives).

However, before the agreement had been signed, a column of 470 Taliban broke off from the main group in Kunduz and arrived at Mazar-i-Sharif. Although they claimed to be giving themselves up, the Northern Alliance soldiers had their suspicions. They were told to take them to Dostum's nearby fortress at a place called Kalai Janghi. There these suspicions were confirmed when a prisoner revolt left (according to Dostum) 45 Northern Alliance soldiers dead and 205 wounded. But no one knew, the film continues, that 86 of these Taliban (including John Walker Lindh) had survived the battle in underground tunnels.

Why Dostum?

Why did the Americans rely on a man like Rashid Dostum as their prime ally? According to Fox, the Americans believed "he was the only one who could deliver there simply was not an option." The analyst goes on to call him "an extremely violent man with an extremely violent record, and with a very personal approach to the meting out of justice and the extracting of evidence under torture."

When the filmmakers put the question to Perle, the weaseling would-be pragmatist replies:
"[I]n a situation like that, you have to balance out competing interests. Obviously we would much rather be aligned with Mother Teresa. That wasn't possible in those circumstances. It does lead to a responsibility on our part for trying to help reshape Afghanistan along more humane and democratic lines, and I think that's exactly what we should be doing."

How the second part of that peroration logically follows from the first, I will leave up to more subtle intellects to discern; suffice it to say that the film does a good job, without needing to make the point verbally, of showing another side of what are for Perle (happily ensconced by a crackling fire in Washington) mere "competing interests": decaying bodies, shattered homes and bleached piles of bones.

The End of the Story – Or Just the Beginning?

After the prison battle, the film continues, most of the foreign press left because the "big story" had been Lindh. Few stayed on the story. Yet only 3,015 prisoners survived, and many of them weren't even people who had been involved originally – rather, witnesses charge, they were merely local farmers picked up for the crime of speaking Pashtun. According to Doran, there is a clear contradiction between Dostum's claim that only 3,000 to 4,000 Taliban had been taken prisoner in the first place, and the testimony of his field commander at Kalai Zeini, Gen. Abdul Ramatullah, who confirms a more realistic figure of 7,000 prisoners taken.

What happened to the rest of the prisoners? Some hundreds were sold to the secret services of their respective countries, for example the Chechens to the KGB and the Uzbek militants to Tashkent's SMB. The first few thousand sent to the prison at Sheberghan were "the lucky ones," the film states; they merely had to endure an overcrowded jail. But the last prisoners were being shipped out as news of the prison revolt reached the Northern Alliance captors, and revenge was in the air.

The Convoy of Death

How were the prisoners moved out? Gen. Abdul Ramatullah, the man who confirmed a figure of 7,000 prisoners, visibly blanches when the subject of the "containers" is mentioned: "oh no, it's very bad" to mention them, he tells cameraman Quraishi. Dostum's forces commandeered flatbed trucks from all of the surrounding villages, along with their drivers, and stuffed hundreds of prisoners in each of them. (Unfortunately, because of a turn of events we will discuss later, the filmmakers had to label "reconstruction" over the flatbed truck sequence).

After 20 minutes on the road, the film states, the prisoners "started crying for air." Most of them suffocated to death. Others tried to survive by drinking each others' sweat, or even blood, on a four-day drive permeated with the stench of vomit and rotting flesh that one witness described as "a smell to make you forget all other smells you ever experienced in your life."

At one point, Northern Alliance soldiers on the outside were told to make "ventilation" by shooting holes in the trucks. But whereas they could have done this in a safe way by shooting towards the top of the containers, they just shot at random, with the macabre but not unexpected result that they killed prisoners inside.

Tales of Torture, Well Before Abu Ghraib

Another aspect of Convoy of Death that will resonate with audiences today is its testimony to a policy of torture carried out by the presiding American troops. In interviews with former prisoners who managed to survive Sheberghan, we learn that American commandos beat prisoners not only to scare them into talking, but sometimes just to be "cruel."

The frenzy for actionable intelligence is somewhat understandable, given the emergency footing the U.S. was on in the wake of 9/11. However, the evidence presented in the film (of humiliating haircuts, beatings for "pleasure," and arbitrary neck-breakings) seems to have little to do with the race to find bin Laden.

Often, one Afghan officer recounts, random prisoners were taken outside, beaten and brought back. Sometimes, however, "they were never returned and they disappeared."
While Pentagon officials denied any knowledge of any such events, survivors tell a different story. The issue becomes most weighty and complex when we move along to the convoy's final destination, the desert of Dasht Leile, where the anonymous bodies of prison and battle dead were dumped. Along with the rotting, bloody corpses packed into the truck containers were many who were not dead, but injured or unconscious. Those who did not die on the journey were summarily executed in the desert by Northern Alliance soldiers. The Afghan witnesses are quite clear that this all took place under the watchful eyes of American soldiers, who wanted the bodies to be disposed of "before satellite pictures could be taken."

An American Responsibility?

"If American soldiers were involved in covering up their role at Sheberghan Prison," says Robert Fox, "it would border on war crimes. But if they stood by as the summary execution of prisoners took place, when they could have intervened, this would be positively criminal."

And, continues Fox, since Americans would never take orders from Afghans, "it is ultimately an American responsibility for whatever went on under the eyes of those American soldiers."

At this point is juxtaposed the reaction of the sanctimonious Richard Perle, who is forced to concede that if such things had really taken place, a Pentagon investigation would indeed be in order. Yet, for the reasons mentioned above, the full power of the juxtaposition is diminished; it is not clear whether the producers are trying to embarrass Perle, in light of his earnest and oft-stated belief in America's moral supremacy, or whether they are simply taking "straight" testimony from the only representative of the defense establishment who would appear on camera.

More humorously, Rashid Dostum appears, claiming to welcome an official investigation – though he also can't guarantee the safety of anyone involved.

Also interviewed is one Manuel Gigante, a UN official in Kabul, who reiterates just how difficult it is to provide witness protection in Afghanistan. This response is elicited by the producers' somewhat astonishing disclosure that their (surviving) witnesses have all agreed to testify at any future tribunal. An official in the Karzai administration, Taj Mohammad Wardak, finally goes on the record as saying Kabul is prepared to sue Dostum in court. But in light of the foregoing this possibility is portrayed as laughable.

The Fascinating Conclusion

Using Convoy of Death as a vehicle for testing the will of international justice makes for a compelling experiment; nevertheless, it is not the film's most interesting aspect.
In the final moments, we learn of head researcher Najibullah Quraishi's second near-fatal misadventure. Apparently there exists a one-and-a-half hour long videotape which shows Dostum's troops, guided by American soldiers, moving the Taliban prisoners from location to location, firing randomly into container trucks filled with prisoners, and finally, shooting the last survivors in the desert. This, the "smoking gun" piece of evidence, would have made Convoy of Death incontestable.

But it was not meant to be. After Quraishi received the tape he was to copy from his contact, the door burst open. Apparently, he was not meant to have seen the tape at all and was severely beaten by the three Afghans who entered, surviving only because of the later intercession of a third party who won his release.

Could this tape be, as Doran suggests, Rashid Dostum's "insurance policy" with the Americans? Doran believes that Dostum is holding on to the full proof out of a desire to "take the Americans down with him" if any war crimes trial ever materializes.
The idea that Dostum is holding a self-incriminating video, and perhaps even had it shot for this reason, shows that to be a successful warlord in the era of spin one need be concerned with more than troops and weaponry. If the wily Dostum really is holding this video as his trump card, it would show that he understands intimately the operative constraints at work in American propagandizing – and, despite all the holier-than-thou bloviations of the Richard Perles of this world, the gaping chasm between America's deeds and its words: a gulf of hypocrisy that continues to blackmail the nation's dealings with dubious "partners" the world over.

Christopher Deliso

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