Assessments and Documentation in Afghanistan | Assessments in Afghanistan: Dasht-e-Leili

In November 2001, as many as 2,000 surrendered Taliban fighters and others are believed to have been suffocated to death or shot in container trucks by U.S.-allied Afghan troops of the “Northern Alliance,” and buried in a mass grave in Dasht-e-Leili, near the town of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan.

PHR forensic investigators discovered a mass grave at that location in 2002, conducting an initial examination of part of the site under the auspices of the United Nations. Since then, we have advocated for a full and unfettered investigation by the U.S. and Afghan government of what happened at Dasht-e-Leili, including destruction of evidence and tampering with the site, and for the right of the families of the victims to know the truth.

Links to resources:

The timeline below contains links to various pdf documents and other resources. Here are some highlights:

  • New York Times articleStudy Hints at Mass Killing of the Taliban, May 1, 2002
  • Filmmaker Jamie Doran releases video testimonies of eyewitnesses, June 2002
  • Newsweek articleThe Death Convoy of Afghanistan, August 2002
  • Through analysis done by the AAAS of satellite images, PHR learns of apparent earth-moving equipment used at the gravesite in 2006. June, 2009
  • New York Times article reveals obstruction of investigation of the alleged war crime by the Bush Administration, July 10, 2009
  • PHR releases two videos detailing the findings and work on the Dasht-e Leili gravesite, July 2009
  • Slideshows of images from January 2002 visit to Sheberghan Prison and from February 2002 initial investigation at Dasht-e-Leli.


November 20: General Abdul Rashid Dostum and U.S.-allied Northern Alliance surround Kunduz, Afghanistan, where Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters hide among civilians.

November 24: The New York Times reports the beginning of the surrender of Taliban troops to the US and Northern Alliance near Kunduz, Afghanistan.

November 25: As the surrendering fighters exit Kunduz, a revolt erupts at the Qala Jangi fortress in Mazar-e Sharif. 

November 28: Many of the prisoners who surrendered to Dostum and allies are transferred to cargo container trucks at the Qala-e-Zeni fortress for transport to Sheberghan prison. 

November 30: According to reports, when the container trucks are opened at Sheberghan Prison, hundreds of prisoners are found dead of heat, thirst, asphyxiation and shooting.


January 11: The first detainees from Afghanistan arrive at Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo Bay Prison, Cuba.

January 16-21: PHR researchers Jennifer Leaning, MD, and John Heffernan visit Sheberghan Prison, document appalling conditions there, and report the presence of an alleged mass gravesite at nearby Dasht-e-Leili.

January 28: PHR informs the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Security Operations, Dr. Joseph Collins, of the existence of alleged mass graves at Dasht-e-Leili.

February 7: President Bush signs an order stripping detainees at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere of Prisoner of War status and certain protections provided by the Geneva Conventions.

February 7-14: Under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, PHR sends forensic experts William Haglund, PhD (Forensic Anthropologist and then-Director of PHR’s International Forensic Program) and Stefan Schmitt, MS (then-Forensic Consultant, current Director of the IFP) to conduct a preliminary forensic assessment of various mass graves in northern Afghanistan, including Dasht-e-Leili. PHR completes an internal report on the mass graves (pdf).

March 1: PHR sends a letter addressed (pdf) to then-Chairman of the Interim Government of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, calling for the protection of mass graves and a plan for further investigation of the Dasht-e-Leili site.

March 15: A copy of the March 1 letter to Chairman Karzai and the February internal PHR report on the site are delivered to Secretary of State Colin Powell; Pierre Richard Prosper, US Ambassador for War Crimes; Lorne Craner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Department of State; and Dr. Joseph Collins, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Department of Defense. Dr. Collins forwards the PHR report to senior Department of Defense officials for further review. Mr. Craner informs Department of State officials about the PHR report. PHR receives no response. 

Early 2002: FBI Special Agent in Charge Dell Spry, head of the FBI component of the Criminal Investigative Task Force at Guantnamo Bay, interviews ten survivors of the alleged “Death Convoy” and files witness reports with FBI headquarters. Spry is told to stop any further investigation of the incident.

April 26 – May 7: PHR forensic experts William Haglund, PhD and Nizam Peerwani, MD(Forensic Pathologist) conduct a preliminary investigation of the Dasht-e-Leili site, which includes digging a test trench that exposes fifteen bodies, and conducting autopsies on three exhumed bodies. The manner of death is determined to be homicide and cause of death in each of the autopsied bodies is determined to be consistent with suffocation. 

May 1: The New York Times publishes a story titled, “Study Hints at Mass Killing of the Taliban,” by Carlotta Gall.

May 2: Following the first public media report of the mass gravesite in the May 1 New York Times article, PHR makes public its February report on the January and February findings at Dasht-e-Leili, together with a press release calling for the protection of, and further investigation of, the site.

June 13: In response to video testimonies released by filmmaker Jamie Doran, PHR reissues its public call for protection of gravesites and a full investigation in a press release. PHR’s John Heffernan appears on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, also calling for protection of Afghan gravesites and a full investigation.

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August: Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan and National Security Council Senior Director for Southwest Asia Zalmay Khalilzad meets with Pierre Prosper, Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues at the Department of State, and discourages Prosper from investigating the Dasht-e-Leili site.

August 5: PHR again meets with Deputy Assistant Secretary Collins. He tells PHR that the Department of Defense will take no action to secure the Afghan mass gravesite or to investigate it.

August 7: PHR sends a letter to high-level UN officials asking the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) to support the protection and further investigation of the Dasht-e-Leili gravesite.

August 20: Newsweek provides the first comprehensive reporting on Dasht-e-Leili. The magazine’s cover story, “The Death Convoy of Afghanistan“, which describes suffocation of prisoners, reportedly in container trucks following their surrender at Kunduz, raises questions regarding US involvement. 

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August 22: PHR issues a press release welcoming the Afghan Government’s pledge to investigate; however, stating the Afghans lack the expertise and resources to do it alone. The US reponse is called insufficient, and UN is urged to authorize a Commission of Inquiry.

August 26: PHR sends a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (pdf), asking for the assurance of security at the gravesite and for the US Department of Defense to review its own responsibilities regarding its ally’s compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

September 19: The UN authorizes an official investigation of mass graves in Afghanistan, including the site at Dasht-e-Leili. However, early 2003 plans for an exhumation of the site by PHR experts are postponed indefinitely due to failures to provide protection for the investigation and apparent lack of political will to support the effort.

September 30: In a Newsweek article, “War Crimes: Digging up the Truth“, Roy Gutman and John Barry report that the UN and the Afghan government agree to allow a forensic team to investigate the mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili.

December: US Human Rights organization leaders meet with Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz. At that meeting, PHR requests protection for its forensic team, security for the site, and a full investigation of the grave.

December 23 Len Rubenstein, President of PHR, follows up the meeting with Wolfowitz with a letter requesting security (pdf) both for the gravesite before the projected UN investigation of it begins, and for the investigative team and the site during the investigation. The letter also requests full Department of Defense investigation of any US involvement in the 2001 incidents.


June 11-12: PHR’s Deputy Director, Susannah Sirkin, discusses the Dasht-e-Leili case with Special Forces officers, military/humanitarian law experts, and human rights organizations at Fort Bragg during an “Ethical Dilemmas for Special Forces” workshop (see full report on the workshop – pdf). The discussion focuses on US responsibility under the Geneva Conventions for fully investigating the incident and protecting evidence, as well as its responsibilities for violations by allies who are known human rights violators.


PHR continues to advocate for protection of the site and investigation of the grave, including with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNAMA, realizing, however, that the politics of the situation and conditions on the ground in Afghanistan are not conducive to meeting this goal at this time.


June 21: Having received no response to its advocacy, and concerned that investigation of the gravesite had still not occurred, PHR submits a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (pdf) to the US Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Air Force, the Navy, the US Central Command, and the Central Intelligence Agency for all information relating to occurrences on and around November 2001 in the region of Dasht-e-Leili.

August 5: Apparent Earth moving equipment and one pit present at Dasht-e-Leili site (as discovered via satellite imagery brought to light in June 2009).


February 19: PHR files a legal complaint (pdf) in US District Court for the District of Columbia against the Department of Defense for its failure to respond to the June 2006 FOIA request. 

July 6: As part of a larger UN forensic assessment mission, IFP Forensic Director Stefan Schmitt visits Dasht-e-Leili and documents large pits in the area where mass graves were documented in 2002, indicative of large-scale destruction of evidence. Schmitt raises concerns in meetings with UN and Afghan officials in Kabul. 

November 17: Believing that the FOIA documents (part 1 (pdf, 7.3MB)part 2 (pdf 5.5MB)) received to date do not represent a thorough search of the relevant records, PHR files a Motion for Summary Judgment (pdf) against the Department of Defense for its failure to respond appropriately to PHR’s June 2006 FOIA request. 

December 9: IFP Director Stefan Schmitt submits his confidential written report to UNAMA and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) with findings and recommendations from his June 24 – July 17, 2008, assessment trip to Afghanistan. 

December 11: McClatchy Newspapers’ Tom Lasseter reports evidence of grave site tampering at Dasht-e-Leili, which had been observed by the PHR forensic expert, Stefan Schmitt. 

December 12 PHR calls for a probe into the removal of the mass graves.

December 19: PHR asks President Karzai request assistance from ISAF (International Security Forces-Afghansitan) to protect the mass gravesite. 

December 22: PHR writes to General David McKiernan, Supreme Commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, requesting that he offer ISAF (International Security Forces-Afghanistan) assistance to the Government of Afghanistan to secure the mass grace site and protect witnesses. 

December 27: General McKiernan’s response to PHR is that it is the Afghan government’s responsibility to request this assistance.


June: PHR learns through satellite imagery analysis (pdf) provided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that apparent earth-moving equipment was present at the site on August 5, 2006.

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July 10: New York Times article by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter James Risen reveals new evidence that the Bush Administration impeded at least three federal investigations into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan beginning in 2002. The Times reports PHR’s call for the Department of Justice to investigate alleged obstruction of justice by the Bush Administration for shutting down an FBI criminal probe and at least two other federal investigations of the alleged Dasht-e-Leili massacre. PHR reiterates its call on the Government of Afghanistan, which has jurisdiction over the alleged mass grave site, to:

  • secure the area with the assistance of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan);
  • protect witnesses to the initial incident and the ensuing tampering; and
  • ensure a full investigation of remaining evidence at the site, including the tracing of the substantial amount of soil that appears to have been removed in 2006.

July 10: PHR releases short documentaryWar Crimes and the White House: The Bush Administration’s Cover-Up of the Dasht-e-Leili Massacre, along with a transcript of the video(pdf).


April: PHR was featured in a chapter of U.S. journalist Ronan Farrow’s book, War on Peace, discussing the failure of the U.S. and Afghan governments to investigate the alleged crimes associated with the Dasht-e-Leili mass grave site. The chapter recounts the forensic assessments conducted by PHR, PHR’s advocacy for the right to truth, and includes interviews with Afghanistan’s General Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose denial of mass crimes of captives in Kunduz is in contradiction with evidence resulting from seven years of investigation by PHR, the United Nations, and investigative journalists.

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