The Battle of Qala-i-Jangi (also incorrectly referred to as the "Battle of Mazar-i-Sharif") was a prisoner-of-war camp uprising that took place between November 25 and December 1, 2001, in northern Afghanistan, following the armed intervention by United States-led coalition forces to try to overthrow the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which it had accused of harboring al-Qaeda operatives.
Hundreds of men, including many non-Afghans, surrendered near Kunduz and were being held as enemy combatants at Qala-i-Jangi fortress by the Afghan Northern Alliance (United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan) forces for an interrogation by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel interested in the suspected al-Qaeda members. The prisoners violently revolted and the ensuing fighting escalated into one of the bloodiest engagements of the conflict. Northern Alliance fighters, assisted by British and American special forces and air support, took seven days to quell the revolt.
All but 86 prisoners and a number of Northern Alliance fighters were killed. The only U.S. fatality was the CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann, the first American to be killed in combat during the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Among the surviving prisoners were two American citizens suspected of fighting with the Taliban: Yaser Esam Hamdi and John Walker Lindh.
In late November 2001, with their military situation in northern Afghanistan becoming critical, many Taliban field commanders agreed to surrender to the Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum, leader of the ethnic-Uzbek dominated National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, outside the besieged city of Kunduz. Hundreds of Al Ansar "guest" foreign fighters (mostly from Pakistan and Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East) also surrendered their weapons, including a large group that had arrived in a convoy one day earlier to a place 100 km away of the agreed capitulation site, close to Mazar-i-Sharif. Dostum described the Taliban surrender as a "great victory" for the Alliance, a bloodless success that would allow the future reconciliation of citizens of Afghanistan. Thousands of prisoners were transported to the Sheberghan Prison (it was alleged that many of them died due to mistreatment during and after the transport).
Meanhwile, as the U.S. forces wanted to question the captured foreign fighters about possible links with the al-Qaeda international terrorist network, the Afghans decided to transfer such prisoners to Qala-i-Jangi ("the war fortress" in Persian), a 19th-century fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif that Dostum had previously used as his headquarters and ammunition depot. On November 24, between 300 to 500 foreign suspects were transported on flatbed trucks to the fortress, now turned into a prison. The prisoners had not been searched, and some had concealed weapons during the surrender. On the day of the surrender, two prisoners committed suicide with grenades and killed one of Dostum's commanders and some others in two separate incidents at the makeshift prison. Despite the deaths, the National Islamic Movement militia did not reinforce security at the prison. John Kerry's report for the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations later alleged it was a pre-planned "Trojan Horse" style operation, a gambit that would allow a die-hard force of foreign fighters to take over a strategically-important fortified position at Qala-i-Jangi and capture a massive munitions stockpile.
On November 25, two CIA officers, Johnny "Mike" Spann from the highly secretive Special Activities Division, and Dave "Dawson" Tyson, an Uzbek speaker and region expert, arrived at Qala-i-Jangi to carry out the interrogations in the courtyard. The CIA officers questioned the prisoners, especially John Walker Lindh (at the time, the interrogators noticed only that Lindh was a European-looking prisoner and different from the others, so he was singled out). Approximately two hours after the interviews began, prisoners, some of them with concealed grenades, suddenly rose up and attacked their captors, who were outnumbered four to one. Attacking in a suicidal manner, the revolting prisoners overran and killed Spann and several Afghan guards; they also appeared to be often much better trained than their Northern Alliance fighters, many of whom got shocked and frightened by their enemies' display of skill and fanaticism. The prisoners managed to take over the southern half of the fortress, including the armory and ammunition depot, seizing a large store of small arms, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars and ammunition.
With Spann missing in the chaos, Tyson escaped to the northern and more secure part of the fortress, where he was trapped with a television crew from the German ARD network. He borrowed their satellite phone, and called the U.S. embassy in Uzbekistan, requesting reinforcements. Tyson specifically requested no air support, due to the proximity of allied Afghan forces. The Afghans also brought reinforcements: their personnel and a T-55 tank entered the compound and started firing into the prisoner-controlled area. Several other television crews arrived on the scene of the battle, ensuring it got wide media coverage; the successive stages of the fighting were filmed extensively, providing rare footage of special forces units in combat. At 2 pm, a mixed special ops team, formed with nine U.S. Army Special Forces and six British Special Boat Service operators, arrived and joined the Afghans firing at the prisoners from the northern part of the fort. From 4 pm until nightfall, they directed two U.S. fighter-bomber aircraft for nine airstrikes against the entrenched prisoners, who continued to put up a fierce resistance. Despite Tyson's requests, 500-pound precision-guided bombs were dropped on the armory, which was serving as a firebase for the prisoners. He and the German journalists were rescued when a relief action by four U.S. troops enabled them to escape.
The next day, the allied Afghan militia set up a command-and-control post near the northern gate to direct their tank and mortar fire. By mid-morning they were joined by U.S./British forces divided into three teams: a close air support team designated CAS-1 that went inside the fortress along the bottom of the northeast tower to direct bombing strikes into the southern courtyard, a second close air support team designated CAS-2 that positioned itself near the main gate of the fortress, and a Quick Reaction Force consisting of four more Special Forces troops, a U.S. Navy surgeon, and eight soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division. At 11 pm, a GBU-32 guided bomb, weighing 2,000 pounds (957 kg), directed by the Air Force Special Tactics combat controller on the CAS-1 team, called in the JDAM strike. The pilot mistakenly punched in the wrong coordinates, hitting the combat controller's position. The bomb's explosion killed at least four (some sources say 30) allied militiamen on the northeast tower above the CAS-1 team, flipped over a friendly tank, and injured all members of the CAS-1 team, including five U.S. and two British operators. That night two AC-130 Spectre gunships (callsigns GRIM 11 and GRIM 14) circled over the fortress, firing thousands of rounds at the prisoners. The main ammunition depot was hit, creating a massive explosion which continued to burn throughout the night. One prisoner managed to escape from the fort, only to be captured and lynched by the local population.
By the morning of November 27, prisoner resistance had slackened. The allied forces mounted a systematic assault supported by tanks and other armored vehicles, and defeated a counterattack by the prisoners. By the end of the day, they had recaptured most of the fort, at that point facing only sporadic gunfire and some suicide grenade attacks. The Americans recovered Spann's body, which the prisoners had booby trapped with a grenade. Afghan fighters looted the bodies of prisoners, extracting gold teeth, and finished off at least two who were found to be still alive.
All prisoners had retreated to the basement of a central building, where they hid and were discovered only when they killed the body collectors who tried to enter it. Northern Alliance fighters fired into the area, threw in hand grenades, and even poured oil in and lit it on fire, but nevertheless the resistance continued. On November 28, General Dostum arrived and personally tried to persuade the last prisoners to surrender, to no effect. The next day, he ordered the basement flooded with frigid irrigation water; the last half-dead holdouts finally surrendered on December 1. Of the estimated 300–500 prisoners brought to the fortress, only 86 emerged still alive (some of whom later died of their wounds) from the flooded basement (where more than 60 of them have died), including John Walker Lindh. Some survivors later claimed they did not take part in the riot; one told The Observer reporter Luke Harding that they wanted to surrender earlier, but a group of seven Arabs did not let them.
Of the 86 prisoners who survived the battle, one was found to be John Walker Lindh, who had moved to Afghanistan to help the Taliban battle the Northern Alliance. Shortly after the battle, an embedded journalist working for CNN, Robert Young Pelton, managed to identify the badly injured and hypothermic Lindh, who was then saved separated from other prisoners and saved by an American special forces medic, and later repatriated to the United States to face charges of treason. In 2002, Lindh was found guilty of aiding and supporting the enemy and sentenced to 20 years in prison without parole.
In early 2002, at last 50 other surviving prisoners were transferred to Camp X-Ray at the newly constructed Guantanamo Bay detention camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were mostly Arabs, including 21 Saudis and nine Yemenis, but also Pakistanis and others, such as Russian national Rasul Kudayev (from Kabardino-Balkaria), who had allegedly joined the Afghanistan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Abdul Jabar, an Uzbek member of the IMU. In 2004, after three years of detention without trial (at first at Camp X-Ray, until his identity was discovered), the U.S. citizen Yaser Esam Hamdi won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, which affirmed the right of U.S. citizens to habeas corpus and trial; he was released from United States custody without charges and was deported to his native Saudi Arabia.
For his actions during the battle, Major Mark E. Mitchell, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the first such decoration to be awarded since the Vietnam War. Additionally, U.S. Navy medic Chief Petty Officer Stephen Bass was awarded the Navy Cross to for his actions while attached to the British Special Boat Service.
Johnny "Mike" Spann, the only U.S. fatality, was recognized as the first American killed in combat during the U.S. 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. For his "extraordinary heroism" in fighting off the prisoners long enough to allow his colleagues to escape, Spann was posthumously awarded the CIA's Intelligence Star; because the Intelligence Star is considered analogous to the Silver Star, the Department of Defense allowed him to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. At Spann's memorial at the cemetery, officials said that, after being attacked, Spann "fought with his AK-47 until it ran out of ammunition, then drew his pistol and emptied it, before turning to hand to hand combat which saw him shot." Mike Spann’s family visited the fortress after his death. Afghan doctors who were present on site at the time of the riot told the Spann family they "thought Mike might run and retreat, but he held his position and fought using his AK rifle until out of ammo, and then drew and began firing his pistol," and that only reason that they and several others were able to live was "because Mike stood his position and fought off the prisoners while enabling them the time to run to safety."
Due to the high number of prisoner casualties, and the use of heavy weaponry against them, the Northern Alliance and the foreign coalition forces were accused of breaking the Geneva Conventions by using disproportionate means. American soldiers found a number of the dead with their arms tied behind their back. Abdulaziz al-Oshan, one of the detainees, later summarised the incident and told American authorities at Guantanamo Bay: "They called it an uprising and it's not; it's some kind of massacre." Amnesty International called for an independent inquiry, but the U.S. and British governments rejected this, arguing that the fierce and well-armed resistance of the uprising fully justified the use of airpower and heavy weapons against the revolting prisoners.
The Afghan forces were criticized for mismanagement of the prisoners, which was believed to enable the uprising. The fighters were not properly searched, and some carried grenades into the prison. Dostum later admitted this had been a mistake. Also, as Qala-i-Jangi had been until recently a Taliban base, many of the prisoners had been there before and knew its layout. Dostum had planned to hold the men at a nearby airfield, but the U.S. was using it to ferry in supplies. By questioning the prisoners in a group, rather than separately, protected by few guards, the interrogators put themselves at risk with men known to be dangerous. George Tenet, director of the CIA, dismissed the accusations of mismanagement and praised his agents as "heroes"; in Bush at War, the journalist Bob Woodward described Spann as a hero whose actions saved the lives of many.
Representation in other media
- In the documentary The House of War, Robert Young Pelton and film maker Paul Yule provided a detailed account of these events. Interviews and footage from CNN, ARD, and elsewhere (Dodge Billingsley and recovered interrogation footage) show Mike Spann and Dave Tyson moments before the uprising. Pelton's The World's Most Dangerous Places one-hour special "Inside Afghanistan" details his time with the U.S. Special Forces team (ODA 595) that fought with Dostum's troops.
- Doug Stanton's book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan opens with an account of the battle.
- Frederick Forsyth's novel The Afghan includes a partly fictional but detailed account of the battle and its context.
- Badaber Uprising, a similar uprising of the Soviet and Afghan communist captives in a fortress prison in Pakistan in 1985.
- Fall of Mazari Sharif, which involved a killing of hundreds of young fighters from Pakistan cornered by the Northern Alliance and U.S. forces in a school building in 2001.
- Estimates of the number of prisoners vary: some sources place their number at 300 , others at 400 , others at 500 .
- Page 78 - The Report of The Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment
- Mark Kukis, "My Heart Became Attached": The Strange Journey of John Walker Lindh, pages 126-146
- Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed to Get Bin Laden and Why It Matters Today, page 37 (chapter "Qala-i-Jangi: The Trojan Horse")
- Alex Perry, "Inside the Battle at Qala-i-Jangi", Time Magazine, 20 December 2001, Retrieved February 20, 2007 Cite error: Invalid
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- Perry, Alex, "Inside the Battle at Qali i Jangi", Time, Dec 1, 2001
- David Tyson (1997). "Shrine Pilgrimage in Turkmenistan as a Means to Understand Islam among the Turkmen". University of Georgia. http://www.uga.edu/islam/turkmen.html. Retrieved 2009-08-02.
- Moore, Robin (2003). The Hunt for Bin Laden: Task Force Dagger. New York: Random House. pp. 167–169. ISBN 0-375-50861-9.
- George Tenet, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA 2007, pp. 221-224. ISBN 978-0-06-114778-4.
- Berntsen, Gary and Ralph Pezzullo. Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander 2005, p. 252. ISBN 978-0-307-23740-8
- The house of war – www.cnn.com – Retrieved February 20, 2007[dead link]
- Dodge Billingsley on location account of the event and post action interview with AC-130 105mm gunner
- Worthington, Andy, The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison, Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0-7453-2665-8, 2007
- Boot, Max (2006). War Made New. p. 373. ISBN 978-1-59240-315-8.
- Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus, page 417
- Afghanistan SF leader gets first DSC since Vietnam; http://www.army.mil/ ; – Retrieved June 28, 2007
- Lt. earned a Navy Cross he can't wear | Navy Times | navytimes.com
- "CIA Honors Slain Agency Officers at Annual Ceremony Press Release. Director of Central Intelligence, CIA. Archived from the original on 2006-05-13". http://web.archive.org/web/*//www.cia.gov/cia/public_affairs/press_release/2002/pr05312002.html.
- Bob Woodward, Bush At War, Simon and Schuester, 2002, page 317.
- "Johnny Michael Spann, Captain, United States Marine Corps, Central Intelligence Agency Officer". Arlington National Cemetery Website. http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/jmspann.htm.
- Luke Harding, Simon Tisdall, Nicholas Watt & Richard Norton-Taylor. "Fatal errors that led to massacre", The Guardian, Dec 1, 2001.
- Justin Huggler, "How our Afghan allies applied the Geneva Convention", The Independent, 29 November 2001
- Richard Norton-Taylor."SAS role in fort deaths questioned". by The Guardian, Dec 15, 2001.
- "Spann described as a hero". CNN, Nov 28, 2001
- Bob Woodward, Bush At War, Simon and Schuester, 2002, page 317
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