Page 1 of 2 Mission assassination in Afghanistan
By Pratap Chatterjee
"Find, fix, finish, and follow-up" is the way the Pentagon describes the
mission of secret military teams in Afghanistan that have been given a mandate
to pursue alleged members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda wherever they may be
found. Some call these "manhunting" operations and the units assigned to them
Whatever terminology you choose, the details of dozens of their specific
operations - and how they regularly went badly wrong - have been revealed for
the first time in the mass of secret United States military and intelligence
documents published by the website Wikileaks in July to a storm of news
coverage and official
protest. Representing a form of US covert warfare now on the rise, these teams
regularly make more enemies than friends and undermine any goodwill created by
US reconstruction projects.
When Danny Hall and Gordon Phillips, the civilian and military directors of the
US provincial reconstruction team in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, arrived
for a meeting with Gul Agha Sherzai, the local governor, in mid-June 2007, they
knew they had a lot of apologizing to do.
Philips had to explain why a covert US military "capture/kill" team named Task
Force 373, hunting for Qari Ur-Rahman, an alleged Taliban commander given the
code-name "Carbon", had called in an AC-130 Spectre gunship and inadvertently
killed seven Afghan police officers in the middle of the night.
The incident vividly demonstrated the inherent clash between two doctrines in
the US war in Afghanistan - counter-insurgency ("protecting the people") and
counter-terrorism (killing terrorists). Although the Barack Obama
administration has given lip service to the former, the latter has been, and
continues to be, the driving force in its war in Afghanistan.
For Hall, a Foreign Service officer who was less than two months away from a
plush assignment in London, working with the military had already proven more
difficult than he expected. In an article for Foreign Service Journal published
a couple of months before the meeting, he wrote, "I felt like I never really
knew what was going on, where I was supposed to be, what my role was, or if I
even had one. In particular, I didn't speak either language that I needed:
Pashtu or military."
It had been no less awkward for Phillips. Just a month earlier, he had
personally handed over "solatia" payments - condolence payments for civilian
deaths wrongfully caused by US forces - in governor Sherzai's presence, while
condemning the act of a Taliban suicide bomber who had killed 19 civilians,
setting off the incident in question.
"We come here as your guests," he told the relatives of those killed, "invited
to aid in the reconstruction and improved security and governance of Nangarhar,
to bring you a better life and a brighter future for you and your children.
Today, as I look upon the victims and their families, I join you in mourning
for your loved ones."
Hall and Phillips were in charge of a portfolio of 33 active US reconstruction
projects worth US$11 million in Nangarhar, focused on road-building, school
supplies and an agricultural program aimed at exporting fruits and vegetables
from the province.
Yet the mission of their military-led "provincial reconstruction team" (made up
of civilian experts, State Department officials and soldiers) appeared to be in
direct conflict with those of the "capture/kill" team of special operations
forces (Navy Seals, Army Rangers and Green Berets, together with operatives
from the Central Intelligence Agency's Special Activities Division) whose
mandate was to pursue Afghans alleged to be terrorists as well as insurgent
leaders. That team was leaving a trail of dead civilian bodies and
recrimination in its wake.
Details of some of the missions of Task Force 373 first became public as a
result of more than 76,000 incident reports leaked to the public by Wikileaks,
a whistleblower website, together with analyses of those documents in Der
Spiegel, the Guardian and the New York Times.
A full accounting of the depredations of the task force may be some time in
coming, however, as the Obama administration refuses to comment on its ongoing
assassination spree in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A short history of the unit
can nonetheless be gleaned from a careful reading of the Wikileaks documents as
well as related reports from Afghanistan and unclassified Special Forces
The Wikileaks data suggest that as many as 2,058 people on a secret hit list
called the "Joint Prioritized Effects List" (JPEL) were considered
"capture/kill" targets in Afghanistan. A total of 757 prisoners - most likely
from this list - were being held at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility
(BTIF), a US-run prison on Bagram air base as of the end of December 2009.
The idea of "joint" teams from different branches of the military working
collaboratively with the CIA was first conceived in 1980 after the disastrous
Operation Eagle Claw, when personnel from the air force, army and navy engaged
in a disastrously botched, seat-of-the-pants attempt to rescue US hostages in
Iran with help from the agency. Eight soldiers were killed when two helicopters
collided in the Iranian desert. Afterwards, a high-level, six-member commission
led by Admiral James L Holloway III recommended the creation of a Joint Special
Forces command to ensure that different branches of the military and the CIA
should do far more advance coordination planning in the future.
This process accelerated greatly after September 11, 2001. That month, a CIA
team called Jawbreaker headed for Afghanistan to plan a US-led invasion of the
country. Shortly thereafter, an Army Green Beret team set up Task Force Dagger
to pursue the same mission. Despite an initial rivalry between the commanders
of the two groups, they eventually teamed up.
The first covert "joint" team involving the CIA and various military special
operations forces to work together in Afghanistan was Task Force 5, charged
with the mission of capturing or killing "high value targets" like Osama bin
Laden, senior leaders of al-Qaeda and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the head of the
Taliban. A sister organization set up in Iraq was called Task Force 20. The two
were eventually combined into Task Force 121 by General John Abizaid, the head
of the US Central Command.
In a new book to be released this month, Operation Darkheart, Lieutenant
Colonel Anthony Shaffer describes the work of Task Force 121 in 2003, when he
was serving as part of a team dubbed the Jedi Knights. Working under the alias
of Major Christopher Stryker, he ran operations for the Defense Intelligence
Agency (the military equivalent of the CIA) out of Bagram Air Base.
One October night, Shaffer was dropped into a village near Asadabad in Kunar
province by an MH-47 Chinook helicopter to lead a "joint" team, including Army
Rangers (a Special Forces division) and 10th Mountain Division troops. They
were on a mission to capture a lieutenant of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious
warlord allied with the Taliban, based on information provided by the CIA.
It wasn't easy. "They succeeded in striking at the core of the Taliban and
their safe havens across the border in Pakistan. For a moment Shaffer saw us
winning the war," reads the promotional material for the book. "Then the
military brass got involved. The policies that top officials relied on were
hopelessly flawed. Shaffer and his team were forced to sit and watch as the
insurgency grew - just across the border in Pakistan."
Almost a quarter century after Operation Eagle Claw, Shaffer, who was part of
the Able Danger team that had pursued al-Qaeda in the 1990s, describes the
bitter turf wars between the CIA and Special Forces teams over how the shadowy
world of secret assassinations in Afghanistan and Pakistan should be run.
Task Force 373
Fast forward to 2007, the first time Task Force 373 is mentioned in the
Wikileaks documents. We donít know whether its number means anything, but
coincidentally or not, chapter 373 of the US Code 10, the act of the US
Congress that sets out what the US military is legally allowed to do, permits
the secretary of defense to empower any "civilian employee" of the military "to
execute warrants and make arrests without a warrant" in criminal matters.
Whether or not this is indeed the basis for that "373" remains a classified
matter - as, until the Wikileaks document dump occurred, was the very existence
of the group.
Analysts say that Task Force 373 complements Task Force 121 by using "white
forces" like the Rangers and the Green Berets, as opposed to the more secretive
Delta Force. Task Force 373 is supposedly run out of three military bases - in
Kabul, the Afghan capital; Kandahar, the countryís second-largest city; and
Khost City near the Pakistani tribal lands.
Itís possible that some of its operations also come out of Camp Marmal, a
German base in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Sources familiar with the
program say that the task force has its own helicopters and aircraft, notably
AC-130 Spectre gunships, dedicated only to its use.
Its commander appears to have been Brigadier General Raymond Palumbo, based out
of the Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Palumbo,
however, left Fort Bragg in mid-July, shortly after General Stanley McChrystal
was relieved as Afghan war commander by Obama. The name of the new commander of
the task force is not known.
In more than 100 incident reports in the Wikileaks files, Task Force 373 is
described as leading numerous "capture/kill" efforts, notably in Khost, Paktika
and Nangarhar provinces, all bordering the Federally Administered Tribal Areas
of northwest Pakistan. Some reportedly resulted in successful captures, while
others led to the death of local police officers or even small children,
causing angry villagers to protest and attack US-led military forces.
In April 2007, David Adams, commander of the Khost provincial reconstruction
team, was called to meet with elders from the village of Gurbuz in Khost
province, who were angry about Task Force 373's operations in their community.
The incident report on Wikileaks does not indicate just what Task Force 373 did
to upset Gurbuzís elders, but the governor of Khost, Arsala Jamal, had been
publicly complaining about Special Forces operations and civilian deaths in his
province since December 2006, when five civilians were killed in a raid on
"This is our land," he said then. "I've been asking with greater force: Let us
sit together, we know our Afghan brothers, we know our culture better. With
these operations we should not create more enemies. We are in a position to
As Adams would later recall in an op-ed he co-authored for the Wall Street
Journal, "The increasing number of raids on Afghan homes alienated many of
Khost's tribal elders."
On June 12, 2007, Danny Hall and Gordon Philips, working in Nangarhar province
just northeast of Khost, were called into that meeting with Governor Sherzai to
explain how Task Force 373 had killed those seven local Afghan police officers.
Like Jamal, Sherzai made the point to Hall and Philips that "he strongly
encourages better coordination ... and he further emphasized that he does not
want to see this happen again".
Less than a week later, a Task Force 373 team fired five rockets at a compound
in Nangar Khel in Paktika province to the south of Khost, in an attempt to kill
Abu Laith al-Libi, an alleged al-Qaeda member from Libya. When the US forces
made it to the village, they found that Task Force 373 had destroyed a madrassa
(or Islamic school), killing six children and grievously wounding a seventh
who, despite the efforts of a US medical team, would soon die. (In late January
2008, al-Libi was reported killed by a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone
strike in a village near Mir Ali in North Waziristan in Pakistan.)