Failures of Imagination
By Eric Umansky
Carlotta Gall was curious. It was early December 2002, and Gall, the Afghanistan correspondent for The New York Times, had just seen a press release from the U.S. military announcing the death of a prisoner at its Bagram Air Base. Soon thereafter the military issued a second release about another detainee death at Bagram. “The fact that two had died within weeks of each other raised alarm bells,” recalls Gall. “I just wanted to know more. And I came up against a blank wall. The military wouldn’t release their names; they wouldn’t say where they released the bodies.”
Gall started calling the governors of provinces, she says, “asking if a family had received a body back from Bagram in their province.” None had, but Gall did learn that U.S. forces had detained some suspects near the eastern border town of Khost.
She visited Khost and left empty-handed, but a few weeks later, she got another tip and traveled back. The body of one of the detainees had been returned, a young taxi driver known as Dilawar. Gall met with Dilawar’s family, and his brother handed Gall a death certificate, written in English, that the military had issued. “It said, ‘homicide,’ and I remember gasping and saying, ‘Oh, my God, they killed him,'” says Gall. “I hadn’t really been thinking that before.”
The press release announcing Dilawar’s death stated that the taxi driver had died of a heart attack, a conclusion repeated by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, then-Lieutenant General Daniel McNeill, whom Gall later cited as saying that Dilawar had died because his arteries were 85 percent blocked. (“We haven’t found anything that requires us to take extraordinary action,” McNeill declared.) But the death certificate, the authenticity of which the military later confirmed to Gall, stated that Dilawar – who was just twenty-two years old – died as a result of “blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease.”