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AFGHANISTAN: Task Force 373, the Secret Killers – Part 2

Pratap Chatterjee*

WASHINGTON, Aug 21 2010 (IPS) - When Danny Hall and Gordon Phillips, the civilian and military directors of the U.S. provincial reconstruction team in Nangahar Province, Afghanistan arrived for a meeting with Gul Agha Sherzai, the local governor, in mid-June 2007, they knew that they had a lot of apologising to do.

Brigadier General Raymond Palumbo, Task Force 373 commander, at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan on Jul. 26, 2008. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse

Brigadier General Raymond Palumbo, Task Force 373 commander, at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan on Jul. 26, 2008. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse

Philips had to explain why a covert U.S. 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 U.S. war in Afghanistan: counterinsurgency (“protecting the people”) and counterterrorism (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 plum assignment in London, working with the military had already proven more difficult than he expected. In an article for the 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 U.S. 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 U.S. reconstruction projects worth 11 million dollars in Nangahar, focused on road-building, school supplies, and an agricultural programme aimed at exporting fruits and vegetables from the province.

Yet the mission of their military-led “provincial reconstruction team”, made up of civilian experts, U.S. 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.

Capture/Kill Operations

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. 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.

Task Force 373 is supposedly run out of three military bases – in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, and Khost Province which borders the Pakistani tribal lands. It’s possible that some of its operations also come out of Camp Marmal, the German base in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Sources familiar with the programme 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 2010, shortly after General Stanley McChrystal was relieved as Afghan war commander by President 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 Khost, Paktika, and Nangahar, the provinces that border the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of northern Pakistan. 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 Gurbuz’s elders, but the governor of Khost, Arsala Jamal, had publicly complained about Special Forces operations and civilian deaths in his province since December 2006, when five civilians were killed in a raid on Darnami village.

“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 reduce mistakes.”

As Adams would later recall in an opinion article he co- authored for the Wall Street Journal, “The increasing number of raids on Afghan homes alienated many of Khost’s tribal elders.”

On Jun. 12, 2007, Danny Hall and Gordon Philips, working in a province northeast of Khost, were similarly called into that meeting with Governor Sherzai to explain how Task Force 373 could have 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 emphasised 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 U.S. 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 U.S. medical team, would soon die.

(In late January 2008, al-Libi was reported killed by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone in a village near Mir Ali in North Waziristan in Pakistan.)

Paktika Governor Akram Khapalwak met with the U.S. military the day after the raid. Unlike his counterparts in Khost and Nangahar, Khapalwak agreed to support the “talking points” developed for Task Force 373 when communicating with the media. According to the Wikileaks incident report, the governor then “echoed the tragedy of children being killed, but stressed this could’ve been prevented had the people exposed the presence of insurgents in the area.”

Yet Task Force 373’s raids continued.

On Oct. 4, 2007, its members called in an air strike – 500- pound Paveway bombs – on a house in the village of Laswanday, just six miles from Nangar Khel in Paktika Province where those seven children had already died. This time, four men, one woman, and a girl – all civilians – as well as a donkey, a dog, and several chickens would be slaughtered. A dozen U.S. soldiers were injured, but the soldiers reported that not one “enemy” was detained or killed.

On a Monday night in mid-November 2009, Task Force 373 conducted an operation to capture or kill an alleged militant code-named “Ballentine” in Ghazni province. A terse incident report announced that one Afghan woman and four “insurgents” had been killed. The next morning, Task Force White Eagle, a Polish unit under the command of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, reported that some 80 people gathered to protest the killings. The window of an armoured vehicle was damaged by the angry villagers.

One of the last Task Force 373 incidents recorded in the Wikileaks documents was a disaster for the soldiers alone. Just before sunrise on Oct. 26, 2009, two U.S. helicopters, a UH-1 Huey and an AH-1 Cobra, collided near the town of Garmsir in the southern province of Helmand, killing four Marines.

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

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