Editor's note: The following article is an excerpt from this week's SPIEGEL cover story. The facts in the story come from a database of almost 92,000 American military reports on the state of the war in Afghanistan that were obtained by the WikiLeaks website. Britain's Guardian newspaper, the New York Times and SPIEGEL have all vetted the material and reported on the contents in articles that have been researched independently of each other. All three media sources have concluded that the documents are authentic and provide an unvarnished image of the war in Afghanstan -- from the perspective of the soldiers on the ground.
One element of the war logs that is likely to spark considerable debate is the information they provide about the United States' Task Force 373, whose work the Pentagon has sought to keep under tight wraps throughout the war in Afghanistan. The unit of elite soldiers, which includes members of the Navy Seals and the Delta Force, get their orders directly from the Pentagon in Washington and operate outside of the chain of command of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
The existence of this special force is by no means a secret, but top military officials have refused to discuss its controversial mission: the deactivation of top Taliban and terrorists by either killing or capturing them. The TF 373 unit works according to classified lists of enemies compiled by the coalition troops that are called "Joint Prioritized Effects Lists" (JPEL) in military jargon. In the close to 92,000 logs leaked, 84 pertain to JPEL-related actions, and together they provide a bounty of information about a force whose work has at times resulted in civilian deaths.
The documents don't just reveal the existence and activities of the Taliban hunters -- they also make clear why this special unit evokes so much anger among Afghans. Washington has tried to keep its failures from coming to light.
One report in the logs, dated June 17, 2007, includes a warning that the operation must be "kept protected," and that details of the mission should not be provided to any other countries, including America's partners in the Afghanistan mission. The aim of the mission was to kill prominent al-Qaida functionary Abu Laith al-Libi. After staking out a Koran school where he was believed to be located for several days, an attack was ordered. Instead of striking the terrorist, however, the five American rockets killed seven children.
A Sensitive Subject for Leaders in Berlin
Even though the revelations in the leaked war logs involve an American unit, the new information about the secret commando missions could also prove embarrassing for the German government. Roughly 300 men with TF 373 have been stationed on the grounds of Camp Marmal, the German field base in Mazar-e-Sharif, since the summer of 2009. The special unit has chosen a strategically advantageous and shielded location at the airfield, where it operates from the Regional Command North, which is under the command of Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr.
The stationing of the unit was a sensitive issue from the very beginning, and officials in Berlin persistently sought to prevent much discussion of the issue. Current German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has also avoided the topic. Only during a visit to the troops in November 2009 did Guttenberg vaguely mention that the Germans were "grateful to the US Army for any assistance." Questions about TF 373 were discouraged.
The elite soldiers, together with a few Afghan units they had trained, had just returned from a five-day air and ground offensive against the Taliban stronghold Gul Tepa northwest of Kunduz. According to the US Army there were 130 dead, all of them insurgents. The Bundeswehr, however, had refused to take part in the attack. The plans, as presented by a US major, had looked like a targeted extermination attack against the Taliban.
The secret military documents contain only two references to the five-day operation with the geographic coordinates of Gul Tepa. And while the task force itself is not mentioned in the entries, the dropping of several bombs is.
The operation became a model for similar operations in the coming months. While the US units were hunting down the Taliban, the only evidence the Germans had of the nightly missions were the closed areas of operation and the detonations, which could be heard clearly at the Kunduz base.
Targeted Killings of the Bundeswehr's Enemies
Recently, targeted killings have been discussed quite openly. After special units killed the new Taliban "shadow governor" of Baghlan, only an hour's drive south of Kunduz, in the night preceding May 29, Kabul reported that Mullah Jabar had been taken out with "precision air strikes."
When the commanders of the German ISAF contingent were offered the targeted killing of the Bundeswehr's enemies, as a service of sorts, it was done so almost officially. After seven German soldiers had died within a short period of time in the spring, a senior US officer at headquarters in Kabul promised the highest-ranking German ISAF officer, General Bruno Kasdorf, that the Americans would hunt down and kill the people behind the attacks on the Germans. And indeed, several Taliban fighters were eliminated in the ensuing weeks.
So far, the government in Berlin has not commented on the expansion of the combat zone in the German sector. As recently as the fall of 2009, members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet were still telling the German parliament, which controls the Bundeswehr's mandate during foreign deployments like Afghanistan, that the "core mission" of Task Force 373 was merely to "conduct reconnaissance and identify individuals who are part of al-Qaida or the Taliban leadership."