US forces behind war crimes at Mazar-i-Sharif: Media covers up

There are two levels of deception being practiced in connection with the horrible slaughter of Taliban prisoners at the Qaila Jangi fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif.

The first is the hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil approach of the US media. You’ll find little mention of the atrocity in US newspapers or newscasts. “A computer database search of US newspapers from recent days reveals an almost total absence of stories examining the issue,” says Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, in its Nov. 30 edition.

Cowed by letters and phone calls from jingoistic mouth-beraters branding even the mildest criticism a sign of sedition, anxious to avoid charges of being a fifth column, the US media hews to an uncritically patriotic line, which means leaving atrocities committed by “our side” unmentioned or under-reported. As Richard Hartung, director of the New York based World Policy Institute says, “I don’t know whether they’ve been intimidated or whether they have just been drawn into the war.” Here’s a clue: Above all else, the media is a business, and the trusted stewards of shareholders’ interests are smart enough not to let some dumb-ass idea of the public’s right to know get in the way of keeping an audience and turning a profit. Free, independent, critical — that’s all public relations mumbo-jumbo. The bottom line is what drives the US media, and if that means covering up, toeing the line, passing off official press releases are original copy, so be it..

Another level of deception is being practiced by the Canadian media. Just as much under the yoke of shareholders as American concerns, Canadian outlets have a little more leeway. Canadians aren’t as happed up about seeing Afghans killed as their southern neighbors are, so Canadian reporters can get away with a little more. So it is that they’re ready to acknowledge that the Mazar-i-Sharif story is being suppressed in the US, indeed, happy to, since it makes them seem all the more open by comparison. But there’s something the Canadian press, for all its self-congratulatory openness, also can’t help but suppress — who the perps are and who the mastermind is. Sure, it’s willing to say the atrocity happened, it’s even willing to pin the blame on Washington’s allies, the Northern Alliance. But it’s not willing to say who was also directly involved. In fact, it’s drawing attention away from the co-culprits entirely, saying their biggest crime was to stand by and watch a massacre happen, without intervening. Except, in reporting the massacre, they also show there were three culprits. It’s only in the headlines and conclusion that two mysteriously disappear.

Remember what happened? Foreign Taliban troops — Pakistanis, Chechens and Arabs mostly, are being held at the ancient Qaila Jangi fortress outside Mazar-i-Sharif. They had negotiated a surrender with Northern Alliance General Rashid Dostum, who says they’ll be allowed passage to Pakistan. Afghan Taliban troops have already be allowed to return to their home villages or have been integrated into Northern Alliance units. A skirmish erupts inside the fortress walls. Why, is unclear. The official story, to be developed later into the bizarre pseudo-dichotomy that “this wasn’t a massacre, it was a battle” (it was both) is that some Taliban have smuggled arms into the prison. The story stinks. Why would fighters lay down their arms, allow themselves to herded into a fortress, surrounded on all sides by Northern Alliance troops and US and British special forces, and then, when they’re at their weakest and most vulnerable, without weapons expect those they can scrounge, dozens of them with their hands bound behind their backs, resume the battle?

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had said days earlier he didn’t want to see foreign Taliban fighters go free. Dead or confined to a prison, was the outcome he preferred. But dead or confined to a prison wasn’t the outcome that was going to happen if Dostum kept his word. Who was going to prevail: Dostum or Rumsfeld?

The question doesn’t even need to be asked. US forces were in control at Qaila Jangi, indeed in control of the Northern Alliance, and much of the country, a point that may have suddenly and shockingly have occurred to the prisoners inside the fortress walls. They weren’t going to Pakistan. Indeed, they probably weren’t going to live. Did they realize they had been double crossed, that there was nothing left to lose, but to fight?

Whatever the case, once the uprising had begun, the Taliban’s jailers had two options. Kill everyone, or bring the riot under control. They chose to hand Rumsfeld his wish.

US special forces called in air strikes. And not just jet fighters to drop bombs, but low-flying Hercules aircraft, specially outfitted to take out ground troops. According to Northern Alliance sources, most of the Taliban killed, were killed by US planes. But US pilots weren’t the only ones pulling triggers. As the Globe and Mail put it, “The revolt was crushed…with the combined efforts of Alliance troops plus US and British special forces.” If a “brutal massacre” had occurred, it wasn’t only Northern Alliance troops who were eagerly mowing down Taliban insurrectionists — it was US and British special forces troops, too.

So now you have US air strikes killing most of the prisoners and acknowledgement that US and British special forces participated in the massacre, so you’d figure the Globe and Mail would conclude something along the lines of, “The US media is suppressing the story of the massacre of hundreds of Taliban prisoners because US forces may have been involved in the commission of a brutal war crime.”

Instead, the air strikes and the role of US and British troops gets swept under the rug and we’re left with “hundreds of pro-Taliban Afghans and foreigners killed this week in a prison uprising… were ruthlessly butchered by their Northern Alliance foes,” and “US forces may have been guilty of failing to intervene to prevent atrocities.” Not only are US forces exonerated of any direct involvement, their indirect culpability is downgraded to a matter of speculation: they “may” have been guilty.

Huh? What happened to the ruthless butchering of Taliban prisoners by US air strikes? What happened to the ruthless butchering done by US and British special forces?

Openness? How about deception? It’s as if a judge were establishing his credentials for impartiality by acknowledging that a police officer who had just brutally murdered a prisoner in his custody with the help of other prisoners may have been guilty of not intervening quickly enough to stop other prisoners from committing the killing. A different kind of deception than the deception practiced by the US media, but a deception all the same. To parrot the Globe and Mail’s own words about database searches failing to turn up any but a few Mazar-i-Sharif stories in US newspapers: If you did a computer database search of Canadian newspapers from recent days it would reveal a complete absence of stories examining US and British culpability.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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