One of the Guardian series of stories based on the "War Logs" documents released by Wikileaks this past Sunday concerned a secretive unit of special forces known as Task Force 373. The NATO coalition has been using this unit to "to hunt down targets for death or detention without trial" from a list of targets known as Jpel. The Guardian identifies the unit's members as American troops drawn from the 7th Special Forces Group but it also suggests that there might be similar units from allied countries.
... the leaked war logs reveal details of deadly missions by TF 373 and other units hunting down Jpel targets that were previously hidden behind a screen of misinformation. They raise fundamental questions about the legality of the killings and of the long-term imprisonment without trial, and also pragmatically about the impact of a tactic which is inherently likely to kill, injure and alienate the innocent bystanders whose support the coalition craves.
What follows that paragraph is a description of a number of missions gone badly wrong. As with many of the other reports, we get descriptions of civilian deaths covered up by misleading press reports and misinformation. As you would expect when the source documents themselves are of American origin, the stories centre on actions involving the American unit.
But then there's this:
The pursuit of these "high value targets" is evidently embedded deep in coalition tactics...
A joint targeting working group meets each week to consider Target Nomination Packets and has direct input from the Combined Forces Command and its divisional HQ, as well as from lawyers, operational command and intelligence units including the CIA.
The logs include references to the tracing and killing of other targets on the Jpel list, which do not identify TF 373 as the unit responsible. It is possible that some of the other taskforce names and numbers which show up in this context are cover names for 373, or for British special forces, 500 of whom are based in southern Afghanistan and are reported to have been involved in kill/capture missions, including the shooting in July 2008 of Mullah Bismullah.
That suggests that there may be at least a British counterpart to the American task force.
In February of this year, when Afghanistan was very much in the news here in Canada because of opposition efforts to get at information concerning the treatment of Afghan detainees and the government's efforts to prevent it, James Travers wrote a piece for the Toronto Star that was accompanied by an infamous photo from 2002. It showed members of Canada's JTF2 escorting detainees across the tarmac at Kandahar airport to be turned over to the Americans. That photo sparked a controversy as did the news in 2007 that three Afghans captured by JTF2 had disappeared into the Afghan prison system. After reviewing those incidents, Travers also reminded us that CSIS has been "actively supporting the troops" in Afghanistan, just as the CIA has been supporting American troops.
Those activities, and the close cooperation between Canada and the U.S. in Afghanistan, help explain the Prime Minister's fierce determination to silence the prisoner abuse debate here. Apart from poking huge new holes in the suspect argument that all detainees are treated well and according to international law, releasing the documents would strain the tightly interwoven fabric of special force and intelligence efforts.
What distinguishes the special forces from the broader Afghanistan mission are its cutting-edge skills, the high value of its targets and an ultra-secretive need-to-know command structure. Unlike the bulk of Canadian troops fighting under the NATO umbrella, JTF2 has long been associated with the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom.
As a source familiar with its work put it this week, the force works side-by-side with the U.S. "to pick up or pick off " top Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders.
If you've come this far, I'm betting you can see why the Guardian story put me in mind of the Travers article. The day after the Star published the Travers piece, it published another one by Allan Woods. I think it was supposed to be a bit of a puff piece on behalf of our special forces but in the context of the Guardian story it comes across a little differently.
The unknown is as black as the operations that Canada's premier counterterrorist force conducts in Afghanistan. The facts, relayed by Col. Bernd Horn, former deputy commander of the military wing that runs Joint Task Force Two, are shocking to the uninitiated.
"Few realize Canadian (special operation forces) personnel have removed an entire generation of Taliban leadership in Kandahar, many of whom were responsible for the deaths of Canadian service personnel," he wrote in the Canadian Military Journal.
Further down in the article is this:
In early 2007, a contingent of Canadian special forces was operating from the former compound of Taliban cleric Mullah Omar west of Kandahar city. Canadians knew the base as Graceland but it was better known by its U.S. name of Camp Gecko or Firebase Maholic.
Apart from U.S., Canadian and other international special forces, the base is believed to house CIA officers and, some suspect, Canadian spies who operate in Kandahar.
I don't have any more evidence than this that Canada's special forces have been part of the extrajudicial kidnappings and killings described in those leaked documents and I certainly can't tell whether they have been involved in the coverups of civilian casualties on the kind of scale described in the Guardian article. But the problem with keeping secrets is that it makes people wonder what you're hiding and the Canadian government, including the DND, has been working so hard to hide information about Canadian activity in Afghanistan that I find it difficult not to wonder. In recent years we've seen too many people who ought to know better who seem to have concluded that the Geneva Conventions are only relevant when they can be invoked to constrain the behaviour of the other side and not our own.
If he were asked, I'm sure Defence Minister Peter MacKay would be only too pleased to take a few moments away from playing Mr. Dressup to assure us that the members of JTF2, along with the rest of the Canadian forces, have been meeting the highest standards of behaviour. The trouble is, I don't believe a word he says.
Have we heard anything from that special committee of MPs yet?