Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

AFGHANISTAN: Task Force 373, the Secret Killers – Part 1

Pratap Chatterjee*

WASHINGTON, Aug 20 2010 (IPS) - “Find, fix, finish, and follow-up” – also known as F4 – is the way the Pentagon describes the mission of secret military teams in Afghanistan which 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 “capture/kill” teams.

Details of one of these secret “capture/kill” teams – named Task Force 373 – first became public as a result of more than 76,000 incident reports leaked to the public in July by Wikileaks, a whistleblower website.

The Wikileaks data suggests that as many as 2,058 people on a secret hit list called the “Joint Prioritised 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 U.S.-run prison on Bagram Air Base, as of the end of December 2009.

The F4 concept was developed at the U.S. Special Forces Command in Tampa, Florida, under the leadership of General Bryan D. Brown, who took over the Special Forces Command in September 2003.

With the support of Donald Rumsfeld, then U.S. secretary of defence. Brown also began setting up “joint Special Forces” teams to conduct F4 missions outside war zones. These were given the anodyne name “Military Liaison Elements.” At least one killing by such a team in Paraguay of an armed robber not on any targeting list was written up by New York Times reporters Scott Shane and Thom Shanker. The team, whose existence had not been divulged to the local U.S. embassy, was ordered to leave the country.

“The number-one requirement is to defend the homeland. And so sometimes that requires that you find and capture or kill terrorist targets around the world that are trying to do harm to this nation,” Brown told the Committee on Armed Services in the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2006.

“Our foreign partners are willing but incapable nations that want help in building their own capability to defend their borders and eliminate terrorism in their countries or in their regions,” Brown said.

In April 2007, President George W. Bush rewarded Brown’s planning by creating a special high-level office at the Pentagon for an assistant secretary of defence for special operations/low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities.

Michael G. Vickers, made famous in the book and film “Charlie Wilson’s War” as the architect of the covert arms- and-money supply chain to the mujaheedin in the anti-Soviet Afghan war of the 1980s, was nominated to fill the position.

Under his leadership, a new directive was issued in December 2008 to “develop capabilities for extending U.S. reach into denied areas and uncertain environments by operating with and through indigenous foreign forces or by conducting low visibility operations.”

“The war on terror is fundamentally an indirect war. It’s a war of partners, but it also is a bit of the war in the shadows, either because of political sensitivity or the problem of finding terrorists,” Vickers told the Washington Post. “That’s why the Central Intelligence Agency is so important and our Special Operations forces play a large role.”

Bush’s departure from the White House did not dampen the enthusiasm for F4 – quite the contrary, even though F4 was altered recently, in typical military fashion, to “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze,” or F3EA. By all accounts, President Obama has expanded military intelligence gathering and “capture/kill” programmes globally in tandem with drone-strike operations by the CIA.

There are quite a few outspoken supporters of “capture/kill”. Austin Long, a professor at Columbia University in New York, is one academic who has jumped on the F3EA bandwagon.

Noting its similarity to the Phoenix assassination programme, responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during the U.S. war in Vietnam (which he defends), Long called for a shrinking of the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan to 13,000 Special Forces troops who would focus exclusively on counterterrorism, particularly assassination operations.

“Phoenix suggests that intelligence coordination and the integration of intelligence with an action arm can have a powerful effect on even extremely large and capable armed groups,” he and his co-author William Rosenau wrote in a July 2009 Rand Institute monograph entitled “The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency”.

Others are even more aggressively inclined. Lieutenant George Crawford, who retired from the position of “lead strategist” for the U.S. Special Forces Command to go work for Archimedes Global, Inc., a Washington consulting firm, has suggested that F3EA be replaced by one term: “Man- Hunting”.

In a monograph published by the Joint Special Operations University in September 2009, Counter-Network Organization for Irregular Warfare,” Crawford spells out “how to best address the responsibility to develop manhunting as a capability for American national security.”

These concepts have unsettled even military experts. For example, Christopher Lamb, the acting director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, and Martin Cinnamond, a former U.N. official in Afghanistan, penned an article for the Spring 2010 issue of the Joint Forces Quarterly in which they wrote: “There is broad agreement that the indirect approach to counterinsurgency should take precedence over kill/capture operations. However, the opposite has occurred.”

Other military types claim that the hunter-killer approach is short-sighted and counter-productive. “My take on Task Force 373 and other task forces, it has a purpose because it keeps the enemy off balance. But It does not understand the fundamental root cause of the conflict, of why people are supporting the Taliban,” says Matthew Hoh, a former Marine and State Department contractor who resigned from the U.S. government in protest against the war in Afghanistan last September.

Hoh, who often worked with Task Force 373 as well as other Special Forces “capture/kill” programmes in Afghanistan and Iraq, added: “We are killing the wrong people, the mid-level Taliban who are only fighting us because we are in their valleys. If we were not there, they would not be fighting the U.S.”

*This article is the first of a three-part series adapted from an article originally published on

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