For eight years, the Bush administration obstructed investigations into a massacre carried out in the name of Americans in Dasht-e-Leili, Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, a representative from Physicians for Human Rights, the group that originally brought the incident to the attention of the Bush White House, met with officials from the new administration, which has reopened the investigation into the incident.
The massacre dates back to 2001. Two months after the September 11th attacks, in a rural corner of Northern Afghanistan, thousands of alleged Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters surrendered to a coalition of United States Special Forces and Afghan forces led by the notoriously brutal warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. They were told they would not be harmed. Soon after, they were stacked into metal shipping containers to be transported to a nearby prison. As numerous reports since 2002 have made clear, in increasingly gruesome detail, hundreds of prisoners never made it to the prison; they suffocated in the airless containers beneath the bodies of fellow prisoners -- and were interred in an unmarked mass grave.
The Bush White House thwarted inquiry into the incident on three separate occasions and terminated a Department of Justice investigation that involved survivors of the incident interned at Guantanamo Bay. By contrast, the inquiry President Obama has commissioned could result in war crimes charges.
Meanwhile, General Dostum, the warlord who by all accounts oversaw the massacre, returned to Afghanistan from an 18-month exile in Turkey last weekend, just four days before the Afghan elections took place. His return and reinstatement in the Karzai government sends a worrisome message given that any investigation into the Dasht-e-Leili incident must be authorized by the Afghan government.
"The only course of action, is to let the FBI finish the investigation they tried to begin at Guantanamo in 2002," said Nathanial Raymond, Director of PHR's Campaign Against Torture. Such an undertaking will require cooperation at many levels both in Washington and on the ground in Afghanistan.
Though the incident occurred at the beginning of the war, it is by no means ancient history. In 2002, the Guardian confirmed reports that witnesses to the events at Dasht-e-Leili were being systematically threatened, murdered and disappeared. Since then, neither the United States nor the Afghan government have intervened to protect witnesses and their families who remain in significant danger, according to PHR.
In 2006, PHR requested certain documents related to the Dasht-e-Leili case under the Freedom of Information Act. Within a month of this request, after almost five years of lying untouched, satellite imaging revealed that the site had been tampered with.
"All [we] know is that the satellite imagery shows what appears to be a hydraulic excavator and a dump truck. We don't know who was driving it we don't know what they took and we don't know where they took it."
"Dasht-e-Leili is a microcosm of the larger challenge facing the Obama administration [and the question] facing the US, are we serious about abiding by our international and domestic obligations to the rule of law?" Raymond said. "Dasht-e-Leili presents a moment for the Obama administration to demonstrate to the rest of the world that we will ensure that the law applies to everyone.".