WASHINGTON – When it comes to war, killing the enemy is an accepted fact. Even amid the sensation of the WikiLeaks.org revelations, that stark reality lies at the core of new charges that some American military commando operations may have amounted to war crimes.
Among the thousands of pages of classified U.S. documents released Sunday by the whistle-blower website are nearly 200 incidents that involve Task Force 373, an elite military special operations unit tasked with hunting down and killing enemy combatants in Afghanistan.
Denouncing suggestions that U.S. troops are engaged in war crimes in Afghanistan, military officials and even war crimes experts said Monday that enemy hit lists, while ugly and uncomfortable, are an enduring and sometimes unavoidable staple of war.
Some, however, cautioned that without proper controls that mandate the protection of innocent civilians, such targeted hits could veer into criminal activities.
Buried in the documents are descriptions of Task Force 373's missions, laying bare graphic violence as well as mistakes, questionable judgments and deadly consequences — sometimes under fire, other times not.
In June 2007, the unit went in search of Taliban commander Qari Ur-Rahman. According to the files, U.S. forces, under the cover of night, engaged in a firefight with suspected insurgents and called in an AC-130 gunship to take out the enemy.
Only later did they realize that seven of those killed and four of those wounded were Afghan National Police. The incident was labeled a misunderstanding, due in part to problems with the Afghan forces conducting night operations.
In another mission, members of Task Force 373 conducted a secret raid, hoping to snag al-Qaida commander Abu Laith al-Libi, who was believed to be running terrorist training camps in Pakistan's border region. Five rockets were launched into a group of buildings, and when forces moved into the destroyed area they found six dead insurgents and seven dead children. Al-Libi was not among the dead.
The summary of the incident says initial checks showed no indications that children would be there. And it quotes an Afghan governor later saying that while the residents there were in shock, they "understand it was caused ultimately by the presence of hoodlums — the people think it is good that bad men were killed."
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who organized the release of the classified documents, said he believes these are among "thousands" of U.S. attacks in Afghanistan that could be investigated for evidence of war crimes, although he acknowledged such claims would have to be tested in court.
But even activists well versed in the realm of investigating war crimes would not go that far.
"I don't think this incident rises to the level of a war crime, but it disturbs me greatly that seven children were killed," said Tom Parker, policy director at Amnesty International USA.
The Afghanistan war, with its terrorist hit lists, counterinsurgency battles and high-tech battle gear, presents difficult questions. "It is really hard to know where assassination ends and war starts," said Parker.
Targeted military strikes, he said, are on the fringe of accepted military practice during an armed conflict.
"This is a relatively new form of warfare that we're seeing now," he said. "The technology takes you to a different place and raises questions that just weren't there 20 years ago. A lot of these questions don't have answers — they have a test of acceptability."
Parker voiced concerns that have hounded the military, the administration and members of Congress over the past two years as the war has escalated: How can the U.S. avoid civilian casualties that alienate the very population coalition forces are trying to win over in order to defeat the insurgency?
"This is a war. The enemy is shooting at us, and we're shooting at them," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. "Are we really suggesting that while the Taliban plant suicide bombs, we shouldn't try to kill anybody?"
Smith said U.S. troops are "aggressively targeting" the Taliban and al-Qaida but any "condemnation of our troops is completely wrong and brutally unfair." Congress and the military, he said, have already identified civilian casualties as a problem that must be corrected, and military leaders have adjusted their war tactics to try and minimize the killing of innocents.
Parker added that Americans may accept the idea of a military team going after an enemy general, but when it's reduced to a hit list of individuals' names, it becomes less palatable.
"Personalization makes people uncomfortable," said Parker.
Still, trying to kill or capture enemy leaders "is precisely what countries do when they are at war," argued Juan Zarate, former senior counterterrorism official in the Bush administration.
As the war in Afghanistan has dragged on, public support in the U.S. and abroad has begun to waver. And the counterinsurgency — which pits U.S. forces against bands of militants rather than another nation's army — blurs the classic battle lines.
There also may be public confusion about the U.S. government's secret hit lists targeting militants.
The military's target list is different from a separate list run by the CIA. The two lists may contain some of the same names — Osama bin Laden, for instance — but they differ because the military and CIA operate under different rules.
While the military can only operate in a war zone, the CIA is allowed to carry out covert actions in countries where the U.S. is not at war.
The CIA's target list came under scrutiny recently when it was revealed that it now includes radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen believed to be hiding in Yemen. Al-Awlaki, who has emerged as a prominent al-Qaida recruiter, was added to the list after U.S. officials determined that he had shifted from encouraging attacks on the U.S. to planning and participating in them.
Also, the CIA uses unmanned aircraft to hunt down and kill terrorists in Pakistan's lawless border regions where the U.S. military does not operate.
The issue becomes murkier when elite military members participate in joint operations with CIA units. In those cases, the military members are assigned to the civilian paramilitary units and operate under the CIA rules, which allow them to take on missions outside of a war zone.
Last December, Gen. David Petraeus, now the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, made it clear the military was going to increase its efforts to kill or capture enemy combatants considered irreconcilable.
Petraeus, who was then the head of U.S. Central Command, said more "national mission force elements" would be sent to Afghanistan this spring. He appeared to be referring to such elite clandestine units as the Delta Force.
"There's no question you've got to kill or capture those bad guys that are not reconcilable," he told Congress.
Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo and Ted Bridis contributed to this report.