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Higher-Priced Education

Critics decry governor’s executive budget for sticking it to state university students

Class war: a message from UAlbany students. Photo by Jaclyn Acker

Gov. George E. Pataki’s executive budget includes proposed tuition increases for the state university system and cuts to the Tuition Assistance Program—and critics say New York’s commitment to higher education couldn’t get much lower.

To shore up a portion of the state’s two-year, $11.5 billion budget deficit, Gov. Pataki announced a number of controversial higher-education spending cuts. Besides asking for cuts of $184 million and $82 million from the state and city university systems’ operating budgets, respectively, Pataki proposed raising tuition $1,200 at all SUNY and CUNY schools. Add to that his plan to cut the state’s tuition assistance program by a third, and Conor Bambrick, higher education associate for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the effects of these proposals would be nothing short of devastating.

“This seems to be a direct attack, a tax, on students,” Bambrick said. “The cuts to the general fund are especially troublesome, because they could cause separate institutions to raise fees on top of mandatory tuition increases. Fees are particularly dangerous, because the TAP program doesn’t even cover them.”

Currently, tuition costs at SUNY and CUNY are $3,400 and $3,200 respectively. Critics of Pataki’s tuition hike said the increase would keep fewer students from attending these colleges and universities, and history agrees. According to figures provided by the state Department of Education, between 1995 and 1996, tuition at SUNY schools increased by $750, and enrollment decreased by roughly 7,500 students statewide.

Pataki is also looking to adjust the way TAP money is disbursed, which NYPIRG said would make it difficult for students from lower- and middle-income families to attend the state schools. Pataki proposed giving students two-thirds of their TAP award up front and providing the remaining third if the student graduates within four years.

The governor included the same proposal in his executive budget address last year, but it was not accepted by the state Legislature. Considering that Pataki’s TAP amendment would require families and students to borrow more money to attend universities, state Assemblyman John McEneny (D-Albany) said he doesn’t expect the proposal to pass the state Legislature this year either.

“Now what happens is young kids get out and they have a mortgaged future,” McEneny said. “Debt is a cruel master, and what it does is eliminates choice. [Students] don’t have the freedom they’d have from graduating without the burden of debt.”

But Matt Maguire, director of communications at the Business Council of New York State, endorses a SUNY tuition increase.

“SUNY tuition has been stable for seven years, which is a rarity in higher education,” Maguire said. “We think that tuition at SUNY should be adjusted more regularly and linked to an indicator of costs on society, such as the consumer price index. This should not be a once- or twice-a-decade political food fight. It should be adjusted sensibly, predictably, regularly.”

McEneny said ultimately, tuition increases and funding decreases will lead to fewer college-educated workers and a troubled future for the state of New York. The assemblyman said on average, a college-educated workforce is better paid and therefore pays more taxes than their less-prepared counterparts. U.S. Census information provided in the February issue of Hudson Valley Magazine helps prove McEneny’s point.

According to the census information, Hudson Valley counties whose populations have higher concentrations of college graduates have higher per capita incomes. In Westchester and Greene counties, 40.9 and 16.4 percent of their populations graduated with college degrees. Correspondingly, those counties’ per capita incomes are $36,726 and $18,931 respectively.

Further, McEneny said the governor’s higher education cuts don’t support the state’s charge to a financial future dependent upon high-tech jobs.

“We’re putting hundreds of millions into our public universities to try to lure high-tech companies, and this is appropriate,” said McEneny. “Tech Valley and high-tech jobs statewide are the wave of the future, but they’re looking at it with tunnel vision. [Cutting tuition] undermines the programs the state is touting. You’re not going to have that workforce of tomorrow.”

Before any of the governor’s proposals become reality, they must be endorsed by the state Legislature, which McEneny said would be an uphill battle.

“The governor knows perfectly well this won’t happen,” McEneny said. “I think in his heart of hearts, Pataki knows this will be a lesser number. I can’t see a 41 percent tuition raise going through, but he is also playing brinksmanship where the stakes are really high.”

—Travis Durfee

Journey to Death

A new documentary suggests that U.S. Special Forces stood idly by as Taliban POWs were murdered

Did American soldiers commit war crimes during the invasion of Afghanistan?

According to eyewitnesses, U.S. Special Forces supervised—some say orchestrated—the systematic murder of more than 3,000 captured Taliban soldiers in November 2001. That charge is the centerpiece of a documentary film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, expected to be released in the United States within the next few weeks.

“There has been a cover-up by the Pentagon,” said Scottish director Jamie Doran, a former producer for the BBC. “They were hiding behind a wall of secrecy, hoping this story will go away—but it won’t.”

Indeed, Massacre has already been shown on German television and to several European parliaments. The United Nations has promised an investigation. But thanks to a virtual media blackout, few Americans are aware that, on the eve of another war, their nation’s reputation as a bastion of human rights is rapidly dissipating.

The allegations stem from the uprising at Qala-i-Jhangi fortress, a dramatic event that marked the last major confrontation between U.S.-backed forces of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban government. Several hundred prisoners, including “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, revolted against their guards and seized a weapons cache. Responding to Special Forces soldiers working with the Northern Alliance, U.S. jets used bombs to kill most of the rebels, but not before CIA interrogator Johnny “Mike” Spann and an unknown number of Northern Alliance soldiers were shot to death.

Eighty-six Talibs, including Lindh, survived the Qala-i-Jhangi revolt. Meanwhile, 8,000 more soldiers surrendered at Kunduz, the last Taliban redoubt in northern Afghanistan. Commanders loyal to Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who later became Hamid Karzai’s deputy defense minister, had painstakingly negotiated the surrender of the Taliban from Kunduz and Qala-i-Jhangi.

As I observed while covering the Kunduz front last fall, Northern Alliance commanders promised to quickly release ethnic Afghans among the Taliban once they laid down their arms. Many immediately joined the Northern Alliance. The status of foreign nationals, the so-called Arab Taliban, was somewhat nebulous since they didn’t have hometowns in Afghanistan to which they might return after being released. In the end, Dostum guaranteed the lives of all 8,000-plus POWs. “Both British and American military officers were present” at the surrender deal, said Doran.

After five years holed up in the mountainous northeastern region bordering China and Kashmir, watching the Taliban capture 95 percent of Afghanistan, Dostum and other Northern Alliance warlords found themselves, after Sept. 11, 2001, with a new best friend: the American taxpayer. Newsweek magazine reported that Special Forces commandos from the U.S. Fifth Group hooked up with Dostum in October 2001, offering hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, advanced weaponry and the use of the Air Force to strike the targets he indicated. Special Forces soldiers turned Dostum and his top commanders into America’s proxy army; the Afghans didn’t dare to disobey the source of that largess.

Although the Americans have been portrayed as tagging along with the Northern Alliance, Afghan forces followed their orders. U.S. troops were in de facto command of joint U.S.-Afghan operations, including Dostum’s actions in the north.

Five thousand of the 8,000 prisoners made the trip to Sheberghan prison in the backs of open-air Soviet-era pick-up trucks. But Dostum’s soldiers, furious about the Qala-i-Jhangi uprising and a Taliban ambush during the siege of Kunduz, were out for vengeance. They stopped and commandeered private container trucks to transport the other 3,000 prisoners. “It was awful,” Irfan Azgar Ali, a survivor of the trip, told England’s Guardian newspaper. “They crammed us into sealed shipping containers. We had no water for 20 hours. We banged on the side of the container. There was no air and it was very hot. There were 300 of us in my container. By the time we arrived in Sheberghan, only ten of us were alive.”

One Afghan trucker, forced to drive one such container, said that the prisoners began to beg for air. Northern Alliance commanders “told us to stop the trucks, and we came down. After that, they shot into the containers [to make air holes]. Blood came pouring out. They were screaming inside.” Another driver in the convoy estimated that an average of 150 to 160 people died in each container.

When the containers were unlocked at Sheberghan, the bodies of the dead tumbled out. A 12-man U.S. Fifth Special Forces Group unit, Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595, guarded the prison’s front gates and, according to witnesses, controlled the facility in the hopes of picking key prisoners for interrogation and possible transportation to Guantánamo Bay. (This is how Lindh was singled out.) “Everything was under the control of the American commanders,” a Northern Alliance soldier tells Doran in the film. American troops searched the bodies for Al Qaeda identification cards. But, said another driver, “Some of [the prisoners] were alive. They were shot” while “maybe 30 or 40” American soldiers watched.

Members of OPA 595, interviewed for the PBS program Frontline on Aug. 2, 2002, confirmed their presence at Sheberghan but cagily denied participating in war crimes. “The prisoners were being treated the exact same way as Dostum’s forces were,” said Master Sgt. “Paul.” “I didn’t see any atrocities, but I easily could have. Some prisoners may have died because they were sick or ill, and Dostum’s forces just couldn’t give them any care because they didn’t have it.”

But even Dostum admits 200 such deaths. And the Northern Alliance soldier quoted above said U.S. troops masterminded the cover-up: “The Americans told the Sheberghan people to get rid of them [the bodies] before satellite pictures could be taken.”

Ten minutes down the road from Sheberghan is the windswept scrub of Dasht-i-Leili. According to the Boston-based group Physicians for Human Rights, the 3,000 murdered Taliban POWs were brought to Dasht-i-Leili for mass burial. One witness told the Guardian that a Special Forces vehicle was parked at the scene as bulldozers buried the dead. Despite a sloppy attempt to remove evidence after the fact, Doran’s camera sweeps over clothing, bits of skull, matted hair, jaws, femurs, ribs jutting out of the sand. Bullet casings littering the site offer grim testimony that some Talibs were still alive before being dumped in the desert.

Since 1999, both sides in the Afghan civil war had killed their prisoners in similar gruesome fashion, particularly in and around the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. And no one is defending the Taliban as a regime. “I have three daughters, and the Taliban disgusted me,” said Doran. “But if we’re a civilized society, then when men surrender then they have to be given basic protection. . . . These men were murdered in a grotesque fashion, summarily executed and kicked into large holes in the ground with American soldiers standing by.”

In recent months, Doran said, two witnesses who appear in his film have been brought to Sherberghan prison and executed by men loyal to Deputy Defense Minister Dostum. The Pentagon refuses to investigate these charges.

—Ted Rall

Ted Rall is the author of Gas War: The Truth Behind the American Occupation of Afghanistan, an analysis of the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline and the motivations behind the war on terrorism.

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