It is late at night on June 24, 2009, when a unit of Task Force 373 heads out on one of its missions. Their target is a property with the code name of "Millersville," a small farm somewhere near the Pakistani border in eastern Afghanistan where the Taliban commander Amir Jan Mutaki is believed to be staying. According to a classified United States military document, he is supposed to have taken part in attacks on ISAF convoys on Highway 1. Mutaki will die later that night because of his role in the attacks.
Some of the TF 373 soldiers are traveling by helicopter, while others are on the ground. When they arrive at their target, everything happens very quickly. Six men, identified as "enemy" in a secret US military report, are shot down by a helicopter from the air. The US forces storm the farmstead. Inside, the special forces find two men, three women and six children, one of whom gets bitten by the US soldiers' attack dog. In addition, they seize materials for making bombs, grenades and multiple AK-47's. The operation appears to be a success.
It is only later that the men of the TF 373 unit find out that one of the men who was killed from the air was indeed their target, Amir Jan Mutaki. The aim of the deadly mission has been achieved.
Outside the ISAF Mandate
The June 2009 report is one of over 90,000 secret documents that have been freely available on the Internet since Sunday evening. They paint a picture of the war in Afghanistan that is closer, more authentic and more merciless than anything that has come before. In the case of the reports about Task Force 373, whose existence the US Army has kept secret for years, the documents perform a far greater function: They give for the first time an insight into the activities of a US special forces unit which operates in Afghanistan outside of the ISAF mandate.
The reports featuring TF 373, which appears in several hundred pages of the secret material, are some of the most sensitive documents of the thousands that have now been made available. There are many pieces of information that shed light on the toughest and most controversial aspect of the war -- the secret hunt for Taliban leaders carried out by special forces. The aim is to eliminate insurgents in Wild West-style -- without judges, evidence or trial. Such operations have been kept strictly confidential for years.
Until now, the special forces operatives have been kept largely sealed off, even from regular soldiers. Now anyone can read about their activities in the official military reports. It is also possible to use the documents to make deductions about the coalition forces' list of enemies, which is still top secret. The list, which has the clinical name of the Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL), includes Taliban, drug barons, bombmakers and al-Qaida members.
The list of targeted individuals is arranged according to process number and priority level. Depending on the case, the commandos are sometimes given the option to arrest or kill their prey. Nowhere in the available documents is that list printed in full, but a total of 84 reports about JPEL operations can be filtered out of the thousands of documents. It is not possible to work out from the documents exactly how many JPEL targets there are in Afghanistan, but the four-digit process numbers are enough to suggest that the total number of targets is large.
Tracking down those targets is the task of TF 373, whose activities are clouded in secrecy. The members of the elite special forces unit do not wear names on their uniforms. Their overnight camps are always kept separate from those of other soldiers. When they go out on a mission, the normal ISAF command center is not informed about their activities. Their operational areas are sealed off as so-called "black boxes," so that ordinary troops do not get in the way -- or the firing line -- of the elite soldiers. Otherwise, the missions are not spoken about.
The men of Task Force 373 come from different branches of the military, including Navy Seals and Delta Force, and act like a pack of wolves. They receive their missions directly from the Pentagon. The special forces often manage to catch their opponents alive. The secret documents include several dozen entries referring to transfers of captives to the notorious terrorist prison at Bagram airbase, north of Kabul. At times the TF 373 soldiers arrive with prisoners several times in one day and hand them over to the guards.
Even Other ISAF Troops Don't Know About TF 373
But Task Force 373 prefers to hunt for "high value targets" such as top Taliban commanders or al-Qaida explosives experts. Those include enemies that no one wants to capture alive. Analysts say such targeted killings are a fact of life in the war in Afghanistan even though the US Army and the ISAF troops don't like to talk about such missions.
The documents don't just reveal the existence and activities of the Taliban hunters, they also show why these special units cause so much anger in the Afghan population. Mistakes made by special units are kept secret. One particularly sensitive report of a TF 373 operation dated June 17, 2007 is classified so secret that details of the mission must not be passed on to other ISAF forces. On this day the soldiers appear to have committed a particularly fatal error. The aim of the mission seems to have been to kill the prominent al-Qaida official Abu Laith. The unit had spent weeks watching a Koran school in which the Americans believed the al-Qaida man and several aides were living. But the five rockets they launched from a mobile rocket launcher ended up killing the wrong people.
Instead of the finding the top terrorist, the troops found the bodies of six dead children in the rubble of the completely destroyed school. One other child who was seriously wounded could not be saved even though a medic spent 20 minutes trying to revive him. Such a dramatic incident can't be kept secret and one day later the US army had to apologize publicly.
The tone of the reports conveys how routine killing has become routine for the members of Task Force 373. One terse report on December 26, 2008 says an operation against a target identified as "Object Midway" cleared a number of compounds and found components for making improvised explosive devices. A brief entry lower down mentions that the soldiers killed 11 supposed insurgents and wounded one local Afghan civilian. The report makes no mention of the reason for the killing.
Even though it is an American unit, the revelations of its secret operations are likely to embarrass the German government. Some 300 soldiers from TF-373 have been stationed at the German military base Camp Marmal since the sommer of 2009. They operate as part of the Northern Regional Command, which is under German command.
Their presence was an awkward issue from the start and was something of a taboo even under Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who took over the ministry last October. His only reference to them was during a visit to the troops in November 2009 when he said vaguely that the Germans "are grateful for any help provided by the US Army." Elite troops had just spent five days attacking the Taliban bastion of Gul Tepa north-west of Kunduz. Some 130 people were killed, all of them insurgents, according to the US Army.
The Bundeswehr German army had refused to take part in the mission. The plans presented by a US major had look like a targeted killing operation against the Taliban.
US Army Offered Revenge for Taliban Attacks on Germans
Guttenberg's spokesman played down the war documents on Monday. The existence of TF 373 was "nothing new," he said, adding that cooperation between the Germans and Americans was working very well in the north. But German opposition parties are demanding information from the government. "From our point of view after reading the US documents it is disturbing how little the German government has told parliament about the operations of American special forces in German territory," said Omid Nouripur, the defense policy spokesman for the Green party.
The German Defense Ministry and Chancellery are aware of the targeted killing by US units of Taliban insurgents, many of whom are suspected of having committed attacks on the German army. But the government has never spoken publicly about this, partly because the killings don't fit in with the desired picture of the German mission. Germany doesn't want to be involved in the deadly hunt for the Taliban.
Last autumn, the Berlin government had said the "core mission" of Task Force 373 was simply the "reconnaissance and arrest of people who belong to al-Qaida or the Taliban leadership." That sounded a lot more harmless than the US war records that have now come to light.
Almost as if it were offering a service, the US Army approached the German military command saying it could hunt down the Bundeswehr's enemies and kill them. After seven German soldiers died in two ambushes in April this year, a high-ranking US officer in Kabul promised General Bruno Kasdorf, the highest-ranking German ISAF officer, that US forces would hunt and kill the organizers of the attacks. In the subsequent weeks several Taliban were eliminated.
The targeted killings are being presented increasingly openly. After US special forces killed the new Taliban "shadow governor" of Baghlan, Mullah Jabar, just an hour's drive south of Kunduz, the joint communication center Kabul reported that he had been killed through "precise air strikes." There have been quite a lot of such reports in recent months. The German government will now have to explain how much it knows about the activities of TF 373.