Fix Night Raids in Afghanistan

The following originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

While international forces in Afghanistan have killed fewer civilians in 2009 than in previous years many Afghans still feel abused and angry. One of the main reasons is night raids.

The military insists that conducting operations at night is necessary because it gives them the element of surprise. Afghans say it increases the chance for confusion, chaos, abuse, destruction, civilian casualties, and community fury.

In July 2009, the Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), General McChrystal, issued a "tactical directive" instructing soldiers to "account for the unique sensitivities toward local women" and to conduct raids in cooperation with Afghan forces. These were positive changes that addressed some of the local concerns, but a new study conducted by the Open Society Institute and an Afghan nongovernmental organization, The Liaison Office (TLO), demonstrates that more reforms are needed.

Night raids are characterized by international forces as breaking into a house in the dark of night, often in concert with Afghan forces, to search the premises and detain individuals. Along the way, soldiers have been accused of engaging in abusive behavior, destroying property, and disrespecting cultural norms. In some cases, Afghans say soldiers gun-butted or kicked their captives, sometimes while handcuffed. Because many compounds house dozens of people, residents in the house who are not the target of the raids complain that this destruction of property is often needless and avoidable.

As the report points out, informants continue to settle their personal rivalries by feeding false intelligence to international forces, who then conduct operations that result in wrongful detentions, or even death. International forces also continue to work with unaccountable and abusive Afghan militia groups (also known as "campaign forces") during highly covert operations. Despite handing over many detainees to the Afghan criminal justice system, international forces often fail to properly gather evidence and collect information that could be used at a trial.

The result: Those who pose a serious security threat may not be able to be prosecuted due to a lack of valuable evidence or can bribe their way to freedom. And, those who are poor and innocent may face being convicted in unfair trials.

With all these problems and more, the study concludes that night raids remain counterproductive to some of the top goals the international community has set out to achieve in Afghanistan, namely increasing stability, garnering greater local trust and support, and strengthening the rule of law in Afghanistan. Night raids, the report said, are even overshadowing the military's pro-civilian successes, such as the reduction of airstrikes that kill innocent men, women, and children.

While it may be necessary for forces to conduct night raids in certain scenarios, military planners need to do a better job at preventing the mistakes that too often accompany the raids. The OSI-TLO study, which was based on information compiled from 20 focus group discussions and more than 25 in-depth interviews in the conflict-prone provinces of Gardez and Paktia, provides six key recommendations:

  1. Find alternatives to night raids wherever possible: While attacking homes at night and detaining suspects may add the element of surprise and reduce the risk to pro-government forces, the way these raids are currently carried out, dramatically increased the chances of indiscriminate use of force against innocent women, children, and men in the house.
  2. Coordinate night raids with local International Security Assistance Force commanders: Night raids can generate enormous hostility among local populations, in one stroke undoing months of counterinsurgency efforts by the local commander. Yet because so many night raids are carried out by Special Operations Forces, local commanders often complain that they do not even know when raids are conducted in their own area of operations. Better coordination will help to protect these gains and reduce the negative consequences of poorly planned raids.
  3. Guard against misinformation: In a society as fragmented by ethnic and tribal lines as Afghanistan, it is paramount that military actors triangulate information more rigorously using a larger number and a more diverse body of local sources, including the Afghan government. It is equally important that international forces thoroughly record and collect evidence when conducting night raids or other search and seizure operations. Doing so will increase the accuracy and credibility of subsequent legal proceedings.
  4. Ensure that greater Afghan involvement is not a blank check: While expanding Afghan involvement and leadership in the authorization and operation of night raids is a significant improvement, and one that communities generally endorse, it is not a panacea to reducing grievances against international forces. For most Afghans, international forces are guilty by association if they do not prevent accompanying Afghan forces from behaving poorly or breaking the law. It is therefore necessary that Afghan National Security Forces are held accountable for abuses and trained not to repeat the mistakes of international forces.
  5. Avoid working with unregulated militia: Working with "campaign forces" that fall outside the official Afghan government security apparatus is a recipe for disaster. These groups are difficult to monitor and have a reputation for abuse. Research shows that Afghans prefer to encounter security forces they can link to a government body that holds them accountable, even if only marginally so. At least they know who to complain to, or in theory who should be accountable.
  6. Restore confidence through greater accountability: Improving accountability would be a key confidence-building measure. Specific changes might include: being more transparent about night raids, at least after the fact if not before; holding Afghan counterparts accountable; and communicating to affected communities when and how any misconduct is addressed. Providing apologies and, where appropriate, compensation to innocent families who are mistakenly targeted may also mitigate community anger after an incident, and improve the perception of accountability.

To facilitate this, international forces should establish a mechanism to receive and respond to complaints and inquiries regarding night raids and to enforce remedies where valid. For it to be effective, this mechanism must be accessible to Afghan communities and provide relevant information about the operations in question. The mechanism should have access to relevant information about the night raids, including a pre-raid written justification for the raid why it needs to be conducted at night-time instead of the day. For purposes of accountability, each raid should also be approved in writing by an appropriate military official.

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