For months, there were hints that something awful had happened. In early December, as Taliban prisoners who surrendered at the battle of Konduz were arriving at Sheberghan prison in northern Afghanistan, a New York Times correspondent reported that dozens had died en route. Then U.N. and human-rights officials showed up to investigate, but their findings were never released. Next a British documentary shown in Europe alleged that U.S.-backed Afghan forces had deliberately killed many of the prisoners, and that U.S. Special Forces had helped bury them. But American officials denied any atrocities, noting that the film had funding from former communists.
Still, NEWSWEEK's Pentagon correspondent John Barry was troubled by the reports and urged us to launch our own investigation. In three trips to the Sheberghan region, Babak Dehghanpisheh interviewed drivers, villagers and surviving prisoners who told a horrifying story: that forces under an American ally, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, had packed prisoners into sealed cargo containers, without air or water, leaving hundreds to suffocate on the trek to the prison. In Washington, Barry interviewed experts from Physicians for Human Rights who found a fresh mass grave near Sheberghan where several hundred of the bodies may be buried; PHR says it alerted Bush officials but got no response. As Barry and Roy Gutman probed further, they learned details of a U.N. report that suggested close to a thousand prisoners had been killed in circumstances warranting a "criminal investigation." But the U.N. had sat on its own report, in part for fear of creating new disorder in Afghanistan.
And the U.S. role? We found no evidence that Special Ops forces approved the actions of Dostum's soldiers. But there is evidence (including photos gathered by James Wellford) that American troops were present at Sheberghan in the days the bodies arrived. Since U.S. forces helped broker the surrender of Taliban forces at Konduz, this story raises the question of whether we bore some responsibility for their safe transfer under the Geneva Conventions of war. And it carries clear, and disturbing, lessons about the risks in fighting wars by "proxy," as we are now contemplating again in Iraq. Because of its horror and potential fallout, this is a story a lot of people didn't want told. For the same reasons, we believe it's one the public has a right to know.