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General News    H3'ed 8/19/10

Tomgram: Pratap Chatterjee, Manhunters, Inc.

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[Note for TomDispatch readers:Atop the last post, I made an offer to TD readers and Chalmers Johnson enthusiasts -- a signed copy of Johnson's new book,Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope , in return for a $150 contribution to the site. The response was little short of amazing and wonderful for our coffers. Thank you so much. Believe me, it will make a difference. Those of you who have already contributed, be patient. It will take a little while to get the books signed and off to you. Those of you who haven't, don't miss the opportunity. By the way, right now at theDismantling the Empire "page"at, you can buy Johnson's book, my new book,The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's, and Andrew Bacevich's just publishedWashington Rules: America's Path to Permanent Waras a threesome for a strikingly cut-rate price. And as long as you've visited Amazon via a TomDispatch link, this site will receive a small percentage of the proceeds! (Keep your eye out late next week for a special Andrew Bacevich surprise post before I shut the site down until Labor Day.) Tom]

The 9/11 killers were mass assassins who gave up their own lives to murder thousands. It's now clear that, in response, the U.S. went into the global assassination business. The first of its "targeted killings" in the Global War on Terror launched by the Bush administration and expanded by the Obama administration seems to have taken place in Yemen in 2002. That November, a Predator drone loosed a Hellfire missile at a car carrying six alleged al-Qaeda operatives. Ever since, an American campaign of assassination from the air via drones operated by "pilots"thousands of miles from those being killed (and so, in a sense, the very opposite of the 9/11 attackers) has only escalated, especially in the Pakistani tribal borderlands. There, the CIA is now running the planet's first 24/7Terminator war.

It's increasingly clear that the ground-war version of the Global War on Terror has featured its own growing assassination wing. Striking numbers of special operations forces have by now been assigned to what can only be termed assassination missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. We don't yet know the full scope of these activities, but it was no mistake that our last Afghan war commander, General Stanley McChrystal, emerged from a world of counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency. He made his reputation in the shadows as a "manhunter," overseeing the Pentagon's super-secret Joint Special Operations Command which, among other things, ran what journalist Seymour Hersh has described as an "executive assassination wing" out of Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

McChrystal received kudos in the U.S. media for the counterinsurgency strategy he implemented in Afghanistan and for restricting U.S. troops from calling in air and artillery support when civilians might be in the vicinity. However, he surrounded himself with former special operations officers,surged in thousands of special operations troops, and cranked up the activities of special ops assassination teams. Now, new war commander General David Petraeus, who has a reputation as the guru of counterinsurgency, is overseeing a further escalation of counter-terror operations in that country.

In other words, the U.S. military is now in the "man-hunting" business in a big way in Afghanistan and globally. Thanks to the massive recent release of secret U.S. military documents by the website Wikileaks, we know far more about what was largely a secret set of activities in Afghanistan (though Anand Gopal did a riveting report on special ops "night raids" for TomDispatch in January), and in particular about a previously unknown manhunting unit called Task Force 373. TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee, author of Halliburton's Army, who has spent much time reporting on the American war in Afghanistan, digs deep into what can now be known about this secretive task force, the doctrine it swears by, and the missions it carries out. Tom

The Secret Killers
Assassination in Afghanistan and Task Force 373
By Pratap Chatterjee

"Find, fix, finish, and follow-up" 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.

Whatever terminology you choose, the details of dozens of their specific operations -- and how they regularly went badly wrong -- have been revealed for the first time in the mass of secret U.S. military and intelligence documents published by the website Wikileaks in July to a storm of news coverage and official protest. Representing a form of U.S. covert warfare now on the rise, these teams regularly make more enemies than friends and undermine any goodwill created by U.S. reconstruction projects.

When Danny Hall and Gordon Phillips, the civilian and military directors of the U.S. provincial reconstruction team in Nangarhar 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 apologizing to do. 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 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 plush assignment in London, working with the military had already proven more difficult than he expected. In an article for 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 in Nangarhar, focused on road-building, school supplies, and an agricultural program aimed at exporting fruits and vegetables from the province.

Yet the mission of their military-led "provincial reconstruction team" (made up of civilian experts, 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. That team was leaving a trail of dead civilian bodies and recrimination in its wake.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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