The first days of 2011 have already been dotted with reports of renewed night raids by US special forces turning lethal for civilians, as the ones in Ghazni and Kunduz apparently were. The resentment these operations stir up among Afghans countrywide seems likely to wipe out any possible military benefit deriving from them. The negative impact on public attitudes towards Coalition forces has been widely recognized. Nonetheless, everything indicates they will feature prominently in this year’s military operations, as AAN’s analyst Fabrizio Foschini realised during a recent visit to Nangrahar.
If at all possible, it is always gratifying for the military to tackle a guerrilla force as if it is a regular army – this can mainly happen in places where the terrain allows for massive use of armour and artillery, or where guerrilla forces have concentrated and set up some sort of local institutions and ‘enemy infrastructure’. Let’s spell it out: Central Helmand in the winter of 2009/10 is an example. Then of course the military can put the enemy to flight and reap the laurels of a ‘victory’ of sorts(*). But what to do in more typical guerrilla conflict where small groups of fighters shelter in mountain hideouts and a network of facilitators or part-time fighters dwell among the population up to the outskirts of cities? Then, the military must lean on tactics consisting mainly of raids, round ups, targeted killings and the searching of private houses, and despite all the new technologies, the degree to which this sort of warfare affects the civil population has changed little in the last hundred years.
Not even a very short visit to Jalalabad in mid-December was spared the controversial issue of night raids. In the few days I spent in Nangrahar province, two ‘search operations’ were carried out not far from the city, leading to deaths, claims, counter-claims and protests.
In the first incident, at around one o’clock at night on 17 December, US special forces (SOF) raided a house in Banda village, in the central Rodat district. One local cleric, Qari Hedayatullah, was killed and ISAF called him an ‘armed insurgent who threatened the security team.’ Reportedly, he was not the objective of the raid, though. Locals argued that he only took up arms in self-defence during the raid and they protested on the Rodat section of the Jalalabad-Torkham highway the following morning. But this proved to be a hasty move on their part: the following night, another search operation struck closer to the city, in Kariz-e Kabir village of Behsud district. This time there were two victims, the brother and cousin of Qari Hedayatullah, the man killed the night before; two other occupants of the house were detained(**). It may seem logical to a military mind to pursue the parental or social networks of a target, but the doggedness shown by the SOF in carrying out the elimination of several members of the same family only increased the anger of locals.
Night raids are among the most boasted about of military operations and, at the same time, one of the main bones of contention between the Coalition and the Afghan government. President Karzai has been complaining about them for years. If his pleas have garnered occasional sympathetic comments by different NATO and ISAF top officers, they have also triggered sharp rebukes when they were considered untimely or annoying. General McChrystal, the first sponsor of a huge spike in SOF raids, was also the first to recognize that they were ‘the single biggest factor generating popular anger at US and NATO forces.’ Referring to the many instances where the victims of raids turned out to have taken up arms only to defend their families from unknown assailants, he went as far as to say that ‘in a similar situation, most of us would do the same’ (for a related article click here). Still, the number of night raids has increased further under his successor General Petraeus who considers them the ‘key to counterinsurgency’. A straightforward request by Karzai in mid-November to completely stop night raids brought no result. Indeed, according to the US strategic review, America intends to, ‘keep up the pace of operations, if not accelerate [them]’.
ISAF has released boastful statistics of the effectiveness of the raids for a three-months period ending 11 November (see this article from New York Times). But ‘effectiveness’ seems hardly the right word to describe night raids, particularly in view of President Obama’s desire in the recent US strategic review to see some ‘durable and sustainable gains’ in Afghanistan. Rather, they can turn into a self-feeding machine – creating their own fresh raw material: more suspects to detain, more houses to target, and ultimately more insurgents to fight. This does not mean the war is being won.
According to NATO quarterly statistics, 80 per cent of night raids end with the surrender of the wanted persons and not with their killing. This means that, at the same time, one raid in five sees the death of some of the particular house’s occupants. On average, 17 operations were carried out every night which means that every night at least three raids turned deadly, as the already quoted NYT article reports. Considering the high rate of faulty or deliberately placed malign intelligence, the fact that armed home-owners who are not insurgents get killed as well as unarmed civilians caught in the cross-fire, would it be ‘sustainable’ that almost on any given night innocents are killed as a result of night raids?
It seems true that raids are less clumsily carried out than before, or at least not to the extent of what happened in Batikot district of Nangrahar on 28 April 2007 when US troops carried away an unaccompanied woman to treat the wounds they had inflicted on her (six more civilians had been killed in the raid), something completely unacceptable for most Afghan families. New rules were issued early last year ordering the presence not only of Afghan soldiers but also female Afghan police, to search women’s quarters of a house (although many witnesses report that they haven’t seen any Afghan forces during raids) as well assuggesting to knock at the door before entering and to wait for daylight to enlist local elders’ cooperation.
But no matter how gentle raids appear to have become in operational guidelines and in ISAF press releases, on the ground, and in the minds of the Afghan public, night raids remain lethal, feral, and absurdly imprecise. On 12 February 2010, the notorious raid on a private party in Khataba village at the outskirts of Gardez took place. A high-ranking Afghan intelligence officer was killed, along with his brother (a district prosecutor) and three women of the family. Over the dead bodies of the women a grisly cover-up was carried out by the US special forces: they dug out the bullets from the corpses and tied them up in an attempt to make it look like a Taleban execution or a family ‘honour’ killing (a cover-up which was blown only after one month of enquiries by a journalist – see his report here).
There is no need to stray far from Nangrahar for further examples. 28 April 2010 saw the raiding of an MP’s house, Safia Siddiqi, and the killing of her brother-in-law, who apparently during the commotion had got hold of a hunting gun – something that happens often in Afghanistan when your house is raided by armed strangers at night. She told AAN that she still wonders if it was the US troops or some political rival that wanted to have her killed and complains that until now the US military have denied her all the information requested and failed to take any initiative against the perpetrators – again, something that happens often in Afghanistan when armed strangers raid somebody’s house at night.
Barely two weeks later, a new operation in Surkhrod district caused eleven deaths, with the locals claiming a majority of civilians amongst them. This was followed by the more and more usual pattern of violent protest which cost a further casualty during a confrontation with the police. To complete a short selection of night raids which went wrong in Nangrahar: during the month of Ramazan two more civilians got killed in the Surkhrod district; the following days saw protesters blocking the main Jalalabad-Torkham road.
It is striking how most of these raids took place in an area very close to the the provincial capital: these parts of Behsud, Surkhrod and Rodat districts form a sort of Jalalabad’s ‘hinterland’ where hardly any big group of armed Taleban would roam around, even not at night. (Banda village, site of the 17 December raid, is slightly more removed.) It is not clear, then, why the level of violence in these operations does not subside. It is true that sometimes big catches – a district shadow governor here, an IED trainer there – are announced, but many isolated suspects who apparently could be captured easily, given the fact that reportedly SOF go in their dozens after a target, are simply killed.
Many Afghans indeed have developed the macabre feeling that US special forces are not interested in gathering information or detaining suspects to see if they are insurgents, abettors, relatives or just scared folk who jumped for their guns. Thus considered, more than the worn-out ‘hearts and minds’ package, one can hear the accusation that the SOF are really interested in ‘shock and awe’, to let the people know what happens to those who are hostile to them. In the words of Safia Siddiqi: ‘I once asked a former PDPA member why the Soviets attacked and killed Afghan people in their homes and he told me that it was a party directive, that if somebody was as much as suspected of being an enemy, it was desirable to have him eliminated. Now the Americans are behaving the same way.’
From the coalition troops’ point of view, there is a potential rationale for an increase in these operations in Nangrahar. The province – till recently regarded a success story in the fields of governance, economic development and security, with the exception of some peripheral districts which had long since been strongholds of the insurgents – appears to be much more insecure and tension-ridden all over its districts. Not only has the insurgency not been uprooted despite local officials’ proclamations, but insurgent operations are carried ever closer to the city. IEDs recently exploded on the Jalalabad ring road, and small magnetic explosive devices widely used by local insurgents sometimes reach into the city centre. Even the main highway connecting Kabul with Jalalabad and Pakistan, already subjected to occasional hit and run attacks mainly targeting fuel tankers, is starting to face the threat of Taleban checkpoints targeting government employees travelling in private cars.
The main arbaki-building effort put up by the US special forces in Achin district, in the south of the province, with a section of the Shinwari tribe, just got them entangled in a bloody land dispute. While it is difficult to assess whether the Taleban have been more fortunate in obtaining some leverage with the rival section of the tribe, the American sponsoring of one side clearly re-ignited a conflict and provided fair opportunities for insurgents to patronize part of a tribe that was previously cold-hearted to them.
Moreover, the support that Nangrahar insurgents enjoy from FATA tribesmen is apparently growing: not only militants of TTP, the Pakistani Taleban umbrella group, travel from Waziristan to join the insurgents in the Khugyani-inhabited districts – thoroughly antagonised by the poppy eradication efforts of Governor Gul Agha Shirzai -, also Afridis from neighbouring Khyber Agency are sometimes mentioned joining the ranks of the local Taleban inside Nangrahar. It is perhaps not by chance, as some analysts have commented, that Mangal Bagh and his Lashkar-e Islam militants have been targeted by the heaviest drone raids carried out so far in Khyber Agency in the same day of mid-December as the night raid earlier described. However, the mention of a Lashkar-e Islam connection for the first time in an ISAF press release (see the previous footnote) in relation to the night raid in Kariz-e Kabir may sound like an attempt to make the drone raids in Khyber Agency more relevant to the Afghan security situation.
In this context, ISAF hailed as great achievements the captures and killings made recently during SOF raids, saying they were disrupting the insurgents’ networks and operative capacity. Local people, however, tend to see them more as an unending string of killings, often of the wrong persons, something which feeds the insurgency more than it actually hampers it.
For example, some locals believe it is the hunt for one of the itinerant shadow governors, Maulawi Yusuf, either in charge of Surkhrod district or of a broader area, which had lead the SOF in a deadly search from house to house since this summer. They point to many cases – like the Ramazan killings – where the victims of the raids had only met with him in normal life circumstances, for he is also a religious cleric. Trying to track him down may, of course, represent a priority for the US troops, but scorching the earth by killing all the people who stumble into him is quite a different thing. Targeting any person who might sympathise with the insurgents or even provide them shelter for one night, under pressure or not, or simply refuses to cut social ties with them is frankly absurd. Killing or arresting religious preachers who might have some kind of ideologic or religious affiliation with the Taleban, or even be lecturing people in their favour, on the other side, will simply backfire as these, as highly respected members of the local community, will not be perceived as culpable of anything by the population. Ethical considerations left aside, killing your way out of the insurgency in one of Afghanistan most populous and strategic provinces seems not a wise enterprise either.
However, new refinements of the regulations for night raids implemented in mid-December have not all been lost: according to some locals, during the Kariz-e Kabir raid of 18 December, the US special forces waited all night outside the house for the dawn azan to be called before acting. Then they jumped in…
(*) Similar operations in Helmand gave Obama the much sought after opportunity to talk about military progress against the insurgency in his recent strategic review (although the declaration was carefully shrouded beneath a veil of words like ‘fragility’ and ‘reversibility’, it is being repeated here and there, albeit without much conviction – the same success of Operation Mushtarak in Helmand is by now being questioned by many sides).
(**) ISAF command reported the arrest of a Taleban leader from Khugyani district in the second raid, and even locals admit that the victims, themselves residents of Rodat, were hosting guests from Khugyani who possibly had relations with the insurgents. The captured leader apparently had been active in organizing attacks throughout the province and in trying to kill a prominent Shinwari anti-Taleban leader in cooperation with Lashkar-e Islam, a militant outfit from Khyber Agency.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020