04.08.12

U.S. Hands Over Night Raids to Afghan Forces, With Possible Consequences

U.S. forces’ controversial predawn raids in Afghanistan will now be carried out by Afghan soldiers. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on how it could weaken the fight against the Taliban.

The deal that seemed so elusive has finally been done. Kabul and Washington have agreed to a compromise solution to the nettlesome issue of night raids that have been carried out by U.S. Special Operations forces on Afghan homes and compounds suspected of harboring Taliban. The Afghan defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, and the senior-most U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, signed a memorandum of understanding in Kabul today detailing exactly how in the future Afghans will lead and approve all of the controversial predawn operations that will be closely supported by U.S. forces and firepower.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai long had made the ending of night raids a personal crusade. His frequent and vociferous objections to what U.S. commanders called the coalition’s most effective tactic against the insurgency had threatened to torpedo any possibility of Kabul and Washington negotiating a long-term strategic partnership agreement that would allow for a residual American presence in the country after the 2014 withdrawal date. Without that post-pullout U.S. military footprint on the ground, and the additional decade-long American commitment, coalition commanders, foreign diplomats, and many Afghans believed that stability would continue to elude their war-torn country. The deal also will allow President Barack Obama to hold it up as an example of progress in Afghanistan at the important NATO summit this May in Chicago.

But the carefully negotiated deal that is designed to give the Afghans authority over the night raids seems to put a rather cumbersome bureaucracy in command of operations that need to be lightening fast as the targets of the raids move constantly. All “special operations,” as the night raids are called, will have to be reviewed and approved, with U.S. input, by an Afghan committee that includes members of the Afghan government and its intelligence and military services—hardly a setup designed for split-second decision making, it seems.

Karzai and many Afghans had long objected to the American-led raids not only because they caused civilian casualties but also because they violated the country’s sovereignty, as well as its conservative traditions in which private homes, and particularly women’s quarters, are seen as being off-limits to strangers, particularly to foreigners, without an invitation.

“Going for raids during the day is like throwing a rock at a flock of birds.”

While the raids have offended Karzai and some Afghans, U.S. military officials insist that the operations have been largely successful, resulting in the killing or capturing of hundreds of midlevel Taliban commanders, while inflicting a miniscule number of civilian casualties. General Allen told Congress last year that 90 percent of the raids were conducted without coalition forces firing  a shot, and that “we got” the targeted Taliban in 50 percent of the operations.

As a result, foreign diplomats and coalition military officers have long been perplexed by Karzai’s very vocal and frequent denunciations of the raids, most recently in the wake of the U.S. soldier accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians last month. They say that Karzai seems to be the only senior government personality who was against the raids. They report that in their tours of the country, few if any Afghans ever ask or complain about the night operations, though it clearly is a sensitive issue even with Afghan soldiers and officers. One Afghan National Army colonel told The Daily Beast that as “an Afghan I do not agree with the night raids, but as an Army officer I see these operations as the best way to eliminate Taliban fighters and commanders.” “Going for raids during the day is like throwing a rock at a flock of birds,” he adds. “You won’t hit them, and they’ll just fly away in different directions.” Wardak, Karzai’s own defense minister, has delivered the same message to the president: that if operations are confined to daylight hours his troops would have to surround an entire village just to look for a single Taliban leader, and that the Taliban, seeing the approaching forces, would quickly scatter.

The Taliban certainly fear the night raids, which catch them off-guard or when they are asleep. “We have lost the highest number of ground commanders in these night raids,” one senior Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan admits to The Daily Beast. Another junior commander in southern Helmand province agrees. “The night raids are terrible for the Taliban,” says Mullah Jihad Yar. He says fear of the night raids has also caused villagers to be less than willing hosts to Taliban who are in need of temporary shelter. “Sometimes villagers are not excited to let Taliban step into their houses,” says Yar.

While night raids are being “Afghanized,” it is unclear to what extent. Afghan forces are and increasingly will be “the first in the door” during the raids, but under the terms of the new deal U.S. troops can also enter “as required or requested.” The new agreement also states that U.S. Special Forces will largely be confined to a “training and support role.” But that language vastly understates the U.S.’s crucial task as an enabling force for any Afghan-led raid. Most of the intelligence used in selecting targets, the transportation, logistics, quick-reaction reinforcements, and heavy firepower will all be provided by the U.S.

For many months and perhaps years to come, active and up-close U.S. support will be crucial. Americans will provide the “bus,” the helicopters and vehicles, to transport Afghan forces to the target area. Then U.S. Special Operations forces, if they are not directly involved in the raid, will be poised nearby, forming an outer cordon around the targeted house. They will be ready to intervene quickly if the Afghan force gets into trouble. Of course, U.S. firepower from artillery to airstrikes will always be on call to bail out the Afghans in an emergency.

While the Afghan public and Karzai may not like the night raids, they will have to learn to live with them for a long time, it seems. As usual, Afghan villagers will feel the pressure, caught as always in the middle. “Villagers can’t stop the Taliban from entering their houses nor can they stop the night raids,” says a senior Afghan police officer in Ghazni province. “So once again the Afghan public is sandwiched between the U.S. and the Taliban.” For Afghans, there’s no end in sight to the squeeze.