Did US Special Operations Forces Want to "Target" Refugee Camps in Pakistan?

Published on
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The Nation

Did US Special Operations Forces Want to "Target" Refugee Camps in Pakistan?

by
Jeremy Scahill

WikiLeaks cables show requests for US embassies in Pakistan to provide information about refugee camps, including the number of internally displaced people. (Photograph: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

In the fall of 2008, the US Special Operations Command asked top US
diplomats in Pakistan and Afghanistan for detailed information on
refugee camps along the Afghanistan Pakistan border and a list of
humanitarian aid organizations working in those camps. On October 6, the
US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, sent a cable
marked "Confidential" to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice, the CIA, US Central Command and several US
embassies saying that some of the requests, which came in the form of
emails, "suggested that agencies intend to use the data for targeting
purposes." Other requests, according to the cable, "indicate it would be
used for "NO STRIKE" purposes." The cable, which was issued jointly by
the US embassies in Kabul and Islamabad, declared: "We are concerned
about providing information gained from humanitarian organizations to
military personnel, especially for reasons that remain unclear.
Particularly worrisome, this does not seem to us a very efficient way to
gather accurate information."

What this cable says in plain terms is that at least one person
within the US Special Operations Command actually asked US diplomats in
Kabul and/or Islamabad point-blank for information on refugee camps to
be used in a targeted killing or capture operation. It also seems
possible whoever made that request actually put it in an email (FOIA
anyone?). It is no longer a publicly deniable secret
that US special operations forces and the CIA have engaged in offensive
operations in Pakistan, but this cable is evidence that they sought to
exploit the US embassies' humanitarian aid operations through back
channel communications to conduct potentially lethal operations.
Needless to say, this type of request is extremely dangerous for aid
workers because it reinforces the belief that USAID and other
non-governmental organizations are fronts for the CIA. In November 2009,
a US military intelligence source told me
that some Blackwater contractors working for US special operations
forces in Pakistan have posed as aid workers. "Nobody even gives them a
second thought," he said. Blackwater, at the time, denied it was
operating in Pakistan.

Speaking of contractors, the cable also reveals that in addition to
the requests from SOCOM and the US Defense Attache, a SOCOM contractor
had also asked US diplomats for "information on camps along the
Pakistan-Afghanistan border which are housing Afghan refugees and/or
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)." Specifically, the cable adds,
SOCOM and its "contractor" have "requested information on camp names and
locations, camp status, number of IDS/refugees and ethnic breakdown,
and NGO/humanitarian relief organizations working in the camps." The
name of the contractor has been blacked out on the cable released by
Wikileaks. 

It is certainly possible that the contractor referred to in this
cable is Blackwater, which held several contracts in 2008 with SOCOM,
though that world is the murkiest of the murky and any contract for
lethal operations would be shrouded and heavily compartmentalized. (For a
detailed explanation of Blackwater and Pakistan, see The Secret US War in Pakistan).
By Blackwater owner Erik Prince's own admission, his private army has
long been in the thick of things along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,
precisely where, according to the cables, SOCOM wanted information on
refugee and IDP camps. In a speech in January,
Erik Prince described Blackwater's operations at four Forward Operating
Bases (FOBs) he said he controls in Afghanistan.  "We built four bases
and we staffed them and we run them," Prince said. He described them as
being in the north, south, east and west of Afghanistan. "Spin Boldak in
the south, which is the major drug trans-shipment area, in the east at a
place called FOB Lonestar, which is right at the foothills of Tora Bora
mountain. In fact if you ski off Tora Bora mountain, you can ski down
to our firebase," Prince said, adding that Blackwater also has a base
near Herat and another location. FOB Lonestar is approximately 15 miles
from the Pakistan border. "Who else has built a [Forward Operating Base]
along the main infiltration route for the Taliban and the last known
location for Osama bin Laden?" Prince said earlier this year. In the
January speech, Prince called those fighting the US in Afghanistan, Iraq
and Pakistan "barbarians" who "crawled out of the sewer."

Whether Blackwater was directly involved in the requests to US
diplomats for information on refugee camps may never be known. Whether
it was Blackwater or another contractor, the role of a private US
company in a potentially lethal operation in Pakistan is an important
aspect of this cable to be probed further.

From the October 2008 cable, it is evident that US diplomats in Kabul
and Islamabad were disturbed by the requests and in it they ask various
US military, intelligence and government entities for "clarification of
the origin and purpose of this tasked." At the same time the cable
suggests that if the CIA or Special Operations Forces wanted such
information, they "should send a front channel cable to the appropriate
Embassy" or a representative of the Director of National Intelligence
rather than by emailing or orally requesting the information from
embassy personnel. Clearly, the back channel approach was used for a
reason.

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