Challenging the US Military's Favorite Tactic in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan

The tactic that the U.S. military in Afghanistan calls its safest and most effective tool to capture or kill insurgent leaders actually helps turn the Afghan population against the United States, according to a new report released today by the liberal Open Society Foundations.

Every night, in an average of eight locations across the country, small teams of special operations forces storm over the walls of Afghan homes, looking for mid-level commanders it believes facilitate or lead insurgent activity against Western troops and the Afghan government, military officials say. According to statistics provided by the military, 85 percent of night raids end without a shot being fired and “just over” 50 percent lead to the capture or death of the target.

But today’s report argues that a five-fold percent increase in night raids and a similar increase in detentions from the raids in the last two years have imperiled more civilians than ever before and reinforced Afghan perceptions that the U.S. military uses “night raids to kill, harass, and intimidate civilians with impunity.” That perception, in turn, can push the Afghan population toward the insurgents and against the very people who are here to protect them.

“We’re sacrificing long term interests for short term gains. You can have a night raid and maybe it will get a terrorist that you’re looking for, perhaps it allows you to gain more information. But in the process, you’ve probably turned that entire family, perhaps their entire community, perhaps their entire tribe, against you,” Erica Gaston, the report’s primary author, told ABC News.

The findings challenge the military’s argument that killing or capturing commanders — despite the acknowledged risk to Afghan sensitivities — can help tip the balance away from insurgents. They are especially relevant as the U.S. is expected to rely more on small, pinpointed raids as tens of thousands of troops begin leaving Afghanistan.

The report credits the U.S. military for improving night raids since the uptick began in 2009. It says the intelligence seems more accurate, the partnering with Afghan special forces has risen dramatically, and the troops are more respectful of women in the homes they raid. But despite those improvements, the report says Afghan anger over the raids has “reached a boiling point” and inflamed the population so much, they cause “blowback that endangers not our only own troops but also Afghan civilians,” as Gaston put it in the interview.

Military spokesmen in Afghanistan say night raids are the safest way to target militant leaders. They say civilian casualties during night raids count for only 1 percent of all civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Above all else, the military argues they are effective.

“They are at a period where normally the target of the operation is the least prepared and where we have the full advantage of night visibility and special equipment on our side,” says Brig. Gen. General Carsten Jacobson, the chief spokesman for NATO troops in Afghanistan. “By getting the middle leadership off the battlefield – the senior leadership mainly being outside the country – this really is a huge contribution to minimize experience, to minimize teaching capability on the side of the insurgency.”

Military officials said NATO plans to study the report, and that reviews of night raids are ongoing. But they indicated there is no intention to reduce the number of night raids -2900 in the last 12 months, according to a senior NATO official.

As Jacobson put it: “We will perform as many night operations as is necessary to take the leadership off the battlefield.”

For Gaston and other critics of the raids, that means the U.S. will continue to risk angering the population, even as it removes more militants from the battlefield.

“Night raids have such a dramatic impact on Afghan impressions of both the international community and the Afghan government that even one night raid in a village can be enough to turn them toward the insurgency,” Gaston said.