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AFGHANISTAN: Task Force 42 and Task Force 121, the Other Secret Killers – Part 3

Pratap Chatterjee*

WASHINGTON, Aug 21 2010 (IPS) - When Wikileaks, a whistleblower website, released 76,000 incident reports from the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the exploits of a secret military “capture/kill” team called Task Force 373 was revealed for the first time.

The Wikileaks data suggests that Task Force 373 targeted as many as 2,058 people in Afghanistan on a secret hit list called the “Joint Prioritised Effects List” (JPEL). Yet Task Force 373 was not the only “capture/kill” team identified in the documents, nor was it the first one in Afghanistan.

A British unit known as Task Force 42 that is composed of Special Air Service, Special Boat Service and Special Reconnaissance Regiment commandos appears in at least a half dozen documents.

Task Force 42 operates in Helmand province. Like their U.S. counterparts, they use Hellfire missiles as well as 500- pound Paveway and Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs.

The first of several reports in the Wikileaks files lists an air strike 53 metres from the Pakistani border that killed nine people on Oct. 12, 2008.

On Oct. 28, 2008, Task Force 42 launched Operation Beethoven to capture or kill Mullah Ziauddin near Lashkar Gah. Ziauddin and three others were killed. Ten days later Task Force 42 fired a Hellfire missile from an Apache AH-64 helicopter in Nad-e-Ali in Helmand province and killed an alleged Taliban member named Janan.

The last Task Force 42 action incident reported in the Wikileaks document occurred on August 28, 2009, when a team entered a compound in Gereshk district and were blown up by a hidden home made bomb. Lee Andrew Houltram, a British Royal Marine was killed while five British soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were wounded and evacuated to Camp Bastion. Seven armed men leaving the site were killed by air strikes.

Task Force 121

The idea of “joint” teams from different branches of the military working collaboratively with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was first conceived in 1980 after the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw, when personnel from the U.S. Air Force, Army, and Navy engaged in a botched seat-of- the-pants attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran with help from the CIA.

Eight soldiers were killed when a helicopter crashed into a C-130 aircraft 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 do advance planning to coordinate far much more closely in the future.

This process accelerated greatly after Sep. 11, 2001. That month, a CIA team called Jawbreaker headed for Afghanistan to plan a U.S.-led invasion of the country. Shortly thereafter, a U.S. 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, other senior leaders of al Qaeda, and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the head of the Taliban. A sister organisation 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 U.S. Central Command.

In a new book to be released this month titled “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.”

Task Force 373

Task Force 121 missions are classified as “top secret” and therefore do not appear in the Wikileaks documents which only cover operations classified at the lower level of “secret”.

The secret teams that are identified in Wikileaks mostly belong to Task Force 373. In a number of provinces – notably Khost, Paktika and Nangahar, three eastern provinces that border the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of northern Pakistan – Task Force 373 is described in over 100 incident reports in the Wikileaks files as leading numerous “capture/kill” efforts.

Some resulted in successful captures, others led to the death of local police officers and even small children, while some have caused angry villagers to protest and attack U.S.-led military forces.

In an ironic twist, one of the last Task Force 373 incidents recorded in the Wikileaks documents was almost a reprise of the original Operation Eagle Claw disaster that led to the creation of the “joint” capture/kill teams. 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 third of a three-part series adapted from an article originally published on

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