A top secret “Kill/Capture List” used to target special operations forces “night raids” in Afghanistan reveals that the Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, was so concerned by the political fallout from the killing of civilians in the raids – and one unit’s cover-up of such killings – that he shut down the raids during March and April 2010.
The document, officially called the “Joint Prioritized Effects List,” was published by Der Spiegel December 28, along with three other documents related to Afghanistan from the Edward Snowden collection of NSA documents. Dated August 8, 2010, it is the first actual complete list of every one of the targets of special operations forces (SOF) night raids at a specific moment to become available to the public.
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The data in the document indicates that a new target list was issued every week, but that targets were sometimes added to the list between the regular editions.
The previously unknown McChrystal ban on the raids becomes clear from an analysis of the notations accompanying each of the individual targets on the list. The data also show that McChrystal began to relax the ban in May and June.
The “kill/capture” document covers a total of 669 individuals but does not show names or other identifying information about each target. The line that gives identifying information has been completely redacted, and even the name of the column is missing.
Matt Hoh, formerly the senior US civilian representative for the US government in Zabel province, who was familiar with the JPEL, has recalled, however, that a high proportion of the targets were never identified by name, but were known only by their cellphone numbers.
The new evidence that McChrystal virtually shut down the kill/capture raids by Special Operations Forces in March and April 2010 is surprising, given his role in stepping up the raids in Afghanistan and his contradictory and opaque responses to the controversy swirling around the issue of civilian killings in SOF night raids in early 2010.
McChrystal had been commander of the Joint Special Operation Command (JSOC), also known as “Task Force 714,” from 2003 to 2008 and had risen to prominence within the military on the basis of a campaign of “kill/capture raids” at an extremely high tempo in Iraq from 2006 through 2008. He had supported the introduction of that same model to Afghanistan after his arrival in the country in June 2009.
The campaign of night raids in Afghanistan had been intensified in the second half of 2009 and the beginning of 2010 by the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan, commanded by Vice Adm. William H. McRaven. Before the arrival of McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan, the rate of night raids by the JSOC units in that country was still less than one per night. By November 2009, the number had already increased to three per night.
That pace of night raids had generated a firestorm of opposition in Afghanistan, reflected in public criticism of the raids by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. McChrystal had acknowledged the problem of civilian casualties publicly for the first time in March, but it was never clear whether he was genuinely concerned about the problem or was merely engaging in deft political management of the issue.
A high proportion of the targets were never identified by name, but were known only by their cellphone numbers.
The “kill/capture list” shows for the first time, however, McChrystal was concerned enough about the issue to secretly shut down the Kill/Capture raids almost completely in March and April 2010. Of the 38 targets either added to the list or updated in March 2010, more than 80 percent were marked for “intelligence collection only,” along with the additional warning “kinetic action or capture prohibited.” In other words, they were to be the subject of continued surveillance, but not night raids.
In April 2010, the ban policy was further consolidated, according to the data in the document. The notations show that, with a single exception, every one of the 35 targets added or updated that month were designated “intelligence collection only.”
By May 2010, however, it appears McChrystal had begun to relax those extraordinary constraints on the special operations raids. Fewer than half of the 104 targets added or updated that month were marked for “intelligence collection only.” The rest were available for the special operations units to kill or capture.
In June 2010, the month Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone article precipitated the firing of McChrystal by President Barack Obama, the prohibition against the raids had disappeared almost completely. Of 225 total entries for the month, only 7 were designated as targeted for intelligence collection. Another 17 were marked “capture only,” meaning that lethal force not to be used. The rest were eligible for potentially lethal raids.
It now appears that McChrystal retreated temporarily from his plan to introduce the Iraq model of kill/capture raids to Afghanistan, not only because of the general outrage they had provoked in Afghan communities, but because of a minor political crisis that one Special Operations forces raid in February 2010 had created.
Innocent civilians were being killed in the raids, not only because they were falsely targeted on the basis of their cellphone numbers, but also because they either defended their own homes or those of relatives or neighbors under attack in the middle of the night, as required by the ancient Pashtun code of conduct called “Pashtunwali.”
McChrystal issued a “tactical directive” on night raids, excerpts of which were made public by the US-NATO command in Kabul on March 5, that acknowledged both Afghan anger over the raids and the fact that the “Pashtunwali” code had led to serious problems of civilian deaths. The directive expressed regret that these “[i]nstinctive responses by an Afghan man to defend his home and family are sometimes interpreted as insurgent acts, with tragic results.”
McChrystal recognized the “effectiveness and operational value” of night raids, but made the surprisingly frank admission that the raids “come at a steep cost in terms of perceptions of the Afghan People.” He said “nearly every Afghan I talk to mentions [night raids] as the single greatest irritant.”
It called for “additional constraints and standardization through Afghanistan,” but the only constraints mentioned, such as the participation of Afghan troops and coordination with Afghan officials, military and local elders, were required only “wherever possible.” And even more telling, the US command let it be known that “small numbers” of US Special Operations Forces units were “exempted” from the directive.
What had prompted McChrystal’s unusual frankness about the “Pashtunwali” problem was an SOF raid near Gardez in Pakita province on February 12, 2010, that had gone terribly wrong and created a political firestorm for McChrystal. The raid had killed two government officials and three women – two of whom were pregnant. It was a particularly dramatic illustration of how civilians were being killed simply because of traditional Afghan values. The women were killed when they tried to assist the men who had been shot, according to eyewitnesses.
But those killings had then led to a cover-up by the raiding party. The US command had immediately published the claim of the special operations unit that the woman had been killed several hours before the raiding party’s arrival, but family members testified to having seen US troops digging the bullets out of the victims’ bodies.
An Afghan government investigator who interviewed the eyewitnesses to the raid upheld their account. McChrystal then ordered a second, unilateral US investigation that never interviewed family members who had been eyewitnesses. After it was completed, a McChrystal spokesman assured this writer that there had been “no cover-up.”
But McChrystal knew that the special forces unit had indeed been guilty of trying to cover up the killings. A source familiar with the case, who insisted on anonymity because he is still working for the US government, revealed in a 2012 interview that several members of the unit involved in the Gardez killings and cover-up had been quietly drummed out of the US military without any formal punishment.
Gen. David Petraeus, who replaced McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan in July 2010, completed the expansion of the kill/capture program that McChrystal had begun. Petraeus was soon touting them as the big success story of the US-NATO military effort. But the hundreds of Taliban that he claimed were being captured every month turned out to be almost entirely innocent civilians. And under Petraeus, the US-NATO command leaked statistics in 2010-11 showing that as many as half of the nearly 3,000 Taliban said to have been killed in the raids over 10 months may have been civilians.