Today in Secret History – February 3 – Death in Pakistan

Death in Pakistan

Three Army Special Forces soldiers were killed and two were wounded in a suicide bombing in northwestern Pakistan on February 3, 2010.  Overall ten died and 70 were injured at a new girls’ school in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Officially, the five were part of the Office of the Defense Representative, Pakistan, a 200 strong Islamabad-based organization that provides cover for special operations.

Cover?  It is well know that clandestine CIA and “black” special operations routinely take place in Pakistan, but the public face is to describe any activities as routine, innocuous, and humanitarian.   After the February 3rd attack, for instance, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad announced that the team was in the Lower Dir District to “conduct training at the invitation of the Pakistan Frontier Corps.”  The statement said they were in Lower Dir to attend the inauguration ceremony of a school for girls that had recently been renovated with U.S. humanitarian assistance.”  “The service members were assigned to the Office of the Defense Representative, Pakistan to conduct civil affairs-related training at the invitation of the Government of Pakistan,” U.S. Central Command said.

I’m not saying they weren’t.  But according to a Pakistani journalist traveling in the convoy, the U.S. soldiers were dressed in civilian clothes and “Pakistani military guides referred to the foreigners traveling with them as journalists,” The Associated Press reported.

And Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik told the news media that U.S. military trainers were spread out across various locations throughout the country.  Meanwhile, the country’s leading Islamic political party called it evidence of the “ambiguity surrounding the presence of U.S. military and intelligence in Pakistan.”

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) said that it had carried out the attack.  A TTP spokesman accused the men of working for Blackwater, the security contractor that changed its name to Xe in 2009. “We will continue such attacks on Americans,” Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told Reuters by telephone.

Richard Holbrooke denied the Blackwater connection.  “It is very revealing that they were on their way to the inauguration of a school. That’s what Americans do,” Holbrooke, then the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan also told Reuters.  “Ever since I have joined the Foreign Service, we have had people who have given their lives in a cause that we believe in.”

The three American soldiers were later identified as Sgt. 1st Class David J. Hartman, 27,  of Rosamond, Ca., and Sgt. 1st Class Matthew S. Sluss-Tiller, 35, of Callettsburg, Ky. – both part of the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne), 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne), out of Fort Bragg, N.C. – and Staff Sgt. Mark A. Stets, 39, of El Cajon, assigned to the 8th Psychological Operations Battalion (Airborne), 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne), also at Fort Bragg.

A curious end to the story is that no less than Lt. Gen. John Muholland, commander of Army special operations, attended the funeral of Sluss-Tiller on a hill overlooking his home in Burnaugh, Ky.  “He was embarked on a very important if not critical mission that is directly tied to the security of this country,” Muholland told the local media.  Sgt. Sluss-Tiller’s mother told a local newpaper that her son grew a beard for his latest mission.  WSAZ.com reported that in a recent phone conversation, Sluss-Tiller hinted of a dangerous top-secret mission that could be his last.

American trainers are in Pakistan to help with intelligence gathering and technical knowledge and equipment, Gen. Tariq Khan, the inspector general of the Frontier Corps told local a ABC stringer.  And Ft. Bragg officials later described what the three were doing as a “low-profile mission.”

Secrets sure are seductive.   In this case though, there are so many counter-productive layers.  If this was just a routine civil affairs and humanitarian mission, then why conduct it as “low profile.”  And though It is what Americans do, why is it American soldiers rather than State Department or USAID representatives?   And what’s the benefit and value anyhow in Pakistan of having soldiers operating in civilian clothes when the local assumption is that military people are there to spy or kill.  So, what, put them in civilian clothes so that the locals think they are Blackwater or CIA?  The contradictions and consequences are numerous and unexamined.  At this micro level, you gotta ask: What, exactly, did these three give their lives for?

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