July 26th, 2010
08:14 PM ET

WikiLeaks shines spotlight on mysterious Task Force 373

U.S. military documents released by WikiLeaks show that a U.S. Special Forces unit in Afghanistan assigned to hunt down terrorists also was responsible for the deaths of civilians, Afghan police officers and, in one particularly bloody raid, seven children while they attended school.

The unit is called Task Force 373. It’s assigned to kill so-called “high value” targets or detain them without trial, often in night operations. The 373 follows a hit list of sorts, according to The New York Times and The Guardian newspaper in England. (WikiLeaks gave The New York Times, The Guardian and German magazine Der Spiegel early access to the documents before posting them.)

The list is referred to as Jpel, which supposedly stands for “joint prioritized effects list.”  Der Spiegel reported in January that the Task Force was active in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.

“U.S. special forces with Task Force 373 are sent out on operations on a nightly basis,” it wrote. “In addition to taking suspected Taliban extremists prisoner, they have many times been responsible for eliminating wanted Taliban leaders.”

The documents published by WikiLeaks cover controversial operations by Task Force 373.  Among the incidents:

- Seeking Taliban commander  Qarl Ur-Rahman in a valley near Jalalabad, Task Force 373 became engaged in a firefight in June 2007 at night. According to a document linked on the New York Times and Guardian sites, “The original mission was aborted…” and the task force later filed a report which said “7 X ANP NIA, 4 X WIA” resulted. That means seven Afghan police officers had been killed. Read the document

- Later that month, the Task Force launched am operation to kill or capture  senior al Qaeda figure  Abu Laith al-Libi in Paktika province, close to the border with Afghanistan. They failed to find Libi, who was killed several months later. During the operation, a missile attack was launched on a mosque compound where several suspects were thought to be, but the action resulted in the deaths of 7 children. The follow-up report said “An elder who was at the Mosque stated that the children were held against their will and were intentionally kept inside.” Read the document, reproduced by the New York Times

U.S. Special Operations missions in Afghanistan have been criticized by human rights groups.

“You have people going in with a kill list and the public accountability simply doesn’t exist,” said Sarah Knuckey, director of the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the New York University School of Law. She went to Afghanistan in 2008 to interview dozens of civilians who had complained of indiscriminate military attacks.

“We didn’t hear specifically the name 373, but it’s clear, judging by what’s been on WikiLeaks – if [WikiLeaks’] information is correct – that what civilians told us is true,” she told CNN.

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