Rights & Freedoms

Strangers kicking in your door


“Hello, I am calling from Kandahar. I got your number from a friend. One of my employees, a driver, was arrested a month ago. ISAF forces came to my house at night and took three people away. They also almost took me. They are still holding the driver, the ICRC says he is in Bagram. His family is very worried. Is there anything you can do?” – That was yesterday, just as I was reading the paper by Open Society Institute and The Liaison Office on the impact of night raids. That night I dreamt of Special Forces entering houses (until the earthquake woke me).

Over the years there has been a steady trickle of people who have dropped by to tell their stories. Of how their relatives had been taken – asking whether there was anything I could do to locate them (in particular in the early years, before the ICRC received greater access to Bagram and before detainees could talk to their relatives through video-link).
Those who had been taken and released recounted how their houses had been attacked (often involving helicopters and soldiers on the roofs and walls, doors kicked in or exploded, messy searches, shouting, children crying, dogs and sometimes violence and casualties). How they had been taken to unknown places, hooded and tied. How the line of questioning – repetitious and often random, irrelevant or superficial – had surprised, angered or worried them. How they had been released again, often in the middle of nowhere, only to discover once they had reached the nearby pump station or chaikhanah that they were in a totally different province, faraway from home.

I can still feel the deep sense of humiliation and betrayal that seemed to fill the room during those conversations. Several of these men – I have not spoken to any women who have been arrested during night raids – had been prominent community leaders, employees of international organisations, teachers. They had participated in election outreach activities, counternarcotics shuras and other kinds of community mobilisation. They were used to being treated with respect and to being looked to for advice and guidance. Many of them were under pressure from the insurgents for the role they played in their communities. Others had been simple labourors or guests. Most of them had trouble looking me in the eyes or standing up straight. They were broken people and only slowly recovering.

It was often the “small” things that had bothered them most: being manhandled and hooded in front of their children during arrest, being continuously shouted at during detention, not being given enough time to go the bathroom, not being given enough water to wash, being released in an unknown area wearing only a pair of trousers and a t-shirt (which is the equivalent of being dropped in an unknown neighbourhood in your underwear), returning to a house in disarray, to women’s quarters that had been violated, to children who have trouble sleeping at night. It was the trauma of being treated as a nobody for no good reason. With nowhere to complain and with no guarantees that it won’t happen again.

The OSI/TLO paper (Strangers at the Door) raises these and other issues and argues that the cost of night raids in their current form, in terms of the resentment they breed, is simply too high. A few of their main points:

• While conducting night searches may provide an element of surprise and an advantage to pro-government forces, it terrorizes local communities and increases the risk of indiscriminate harm to civilians in the area during these raids. Death, injury, property damage, and emotional stress commonly accompanying night raids erode public confidence and limit progress to protect the population.

• Night raids also compound problems stemming from a lack of due process guarantees. These raids are often based on misinformation or bad tips, leading to the detention of innocent people. These people are then frequently jailed for extended periods with inadequate means to challenge their resulting detention. This further discredits the justice system, alienates the population, and undermines efforts to strengthen the rule of law.

• Though it is impossible to verify the facts of each incident, allegations of some abuses are consistent enough to raise a question as to whether international forces have violated international law as well as their own applicable domestic military rules.

• While many claims go unsubstantiated and others are simply false, international and Afghan military forces should not ignore that they are built upon a reality of abuse, and that even the “unbelievable” allegations shape the way Afghan communities understand the conflict.

There is however a certain lack of patience within the military, particularly those on the ground and under fire, towards calls for more restraint and caution. The dilemma is well illustrated in a recent article by Anand Gopal on America’s Secret Afghan Prisons (which is well worth the read in its own right):

The shift signals a deeper reality of war, say American soldiers: you can’t fight guerrillas without invasive raids and detentions, any more than you can fight them without bullets. Seen through the eyes of a US soldier, Afghanistan is a scary place. The men are bearded and turbaned. They pray incessantly. In most of the country, women are barred from leaving the house. Many Afghans own an assault rifle. “You can’t trust anyone,” said Rodrigo Arias, a marine based in the northeastern province of Kunar. “I’ve nearly been killed in ambushes, but the villagers don’t tell us anything. But they usually know something.”

An officer who has worked in the Field Detention Sites says that it takes dozens of raids to turn up a useful suspect. “Sometimes you’ve got to bust down doors. Sometimes you’ve got to twist arms. You have to cast a wide net, but when you get the right person, it makes all the difference.”

For Arias, it’s a matter of survival. “I want to go home in one piece. If that means rounding people up, then round them up.” To question this, he said, is to question whether the war itself is worth fighting. “That’s not my job. The people in Washington can figure that out.”

If night raids and detentions are an unavoidable part of modern counterinsurgency warfare, then so is the resentment they breed. “We were all happy when the Americans first came. We thought they would bring peace and stability,” said Rehmatullah Muhammad. “But now most people in my village want them to leave.”

I have met the people who have been caught up in this “wide net”. And although I wish Mr Arias and his colleagues a safe return to their families, this does not give them the right to randomly disrupt the lives of others and make them into broken people. Afghans should not – in their own country – be treated as if their lives are cheaper, more disposable and less worth protecting than others.

The recommendation in the OSI/TLO report are a good start and I hope they are heeded. But underlying it all is the need to see Afghanistan not just as a battlefield, but as a place where people are trying to have a life that is as normal and undisrupted as possible – in the midst of some very bad odds.

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Thematic Category: Rights & Freedoms, War & Peace