Every night throughout Afghanistan, international forces launch kill/capture raids on Afghan homes. Over the past two years, the use of night raids, particularly by U.S. Special Operations Forces, has skyrocketed—increasing at least five-fold since February 2009, indicating an important tactical shift by U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan.
With the withdrawal of international forces approaching, this shift likely foreshadows the future of military operations in Afghanistan. But these operations continue to be marred by weak accountability and transparency, secrecy in targeting, and substantial popular backlash, which will have significant long-term consequences should the United States and its allies remain so reliant on such raids.
My organization, Open Society Foundations, in partnership with the Afghan organization The Liaison Office, recently released a report that examines the impact night raids have had on Afghan civilians. We found that International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) reforms, primarily through two tactical directives, have one the one hand resulted in significant improvements in how the raids are planned and executed, resulting in reduced risk of civilian casualties, greater accuracy in selecting targets, reduced property damage, increased use of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and more respectful treatment of women during operations.
But our report also found that despite these reforms, improvements have not won much support from Afghans, because they've been overshadowed by the dramatic surge in the number of night raids and perceptions among many Afghans that abuses go unpunished.
Speaking with victims of night raids, a major complaint continues to be accountability. Despite some improvements, ISAF responsiveness to claims of civilian harm from night raids remains weak. Because the vast majority of raids are carried out by U.S. Special Operations Forces -- the least transparent forces operating in Afghanistan—it's exceedingly difficult to follow up on specific cases of civilian casualties or wrongful detention. In many cases, a strong presumption on the part of ISAF and U.S. officials that night raids are accurate often means that allegations of civilian casualties and targeting mistakes are simply not trusted. Investigations are infrequent, findings are not typically made public, and compensation for victims is, based on our interviews with officials and Afghan civilians, uncommon.
What may in part explain the dismissal of such allegations of civilian harm in night raids is the definition of who can be targeted in such operations. Our report on night raids documents a substantial "widening of the net," which has resulted in the detention of significant numbers of civilians.
In a single three-month period earlier this year 1,900 individuals were detained, most of whom were eventually released, raising questions about whether they should have been detained in the first place. We also documented a number of large-scale detention or "clearance" operations in which multiple compounds or entire villages were cordoned off, and male civilians indiscriminately rounded up for screening and questioning. In October 2010, for example, U.S. Special Operations Forces raided Otmenzey village in Kunduz and detained 80-100 men and boys overnight in a mosque. According to witnesses, they used masked informants and indicators such as beards to pick out individuals for further questioning at a Special Operations detention facility. All were eventually released. To the Afghans we interviewed, this makes night raids look more like indiscriminate intimidation, not specifically targeted, intelligence-driven actions. While intelligence gathering is critical, using night raids to arrest and interrogate civilians without clear justification often causes unnecessary harm or trauma, provoking backlash and undermining international forces' legitimacy.
Targeting policies and practices have profound implications for civilians in Afghanistan. Throughout the country, militants can exercise significant control over people's lives. Many have little choice but to interact with militants, provide food, water or shelter to insurgents living in or passing through their villages. As one man from Kandahar told us, "Our entire district is controlled by the Taliban. There is no government or Americans here. We have to have contacts with the Taliban...they come to our homes and take lunch and dinner by force." But such incidental and often coerced contact with insurgents does not convert civilians into combatants or justify targeting and detaining them in military operations.
This blending no doubt presents international forces with an immense challenge in distinguishing civilians from fighters; yet this difficulty is precisely why a workable, clear, and legally sound definition of who is targetable in operations like night raids is so necessary. But secrecy continues to shroud how precisely targeting works in night raids—and how individuals are ultimately singled out for detention or death.
There are also serious legal concerns raised by expanded use of night raids, particularly those that detain individuals for intelligence-gathering purposes. Given that night raids are military operations, not law enforcement actions, under international law such force should generally only be used against combatants—not against civilians who aren't members of the insurgency or directly participating in hostilities. Intelligence value alone is not generally sufficient grounds to detain individuals and certainly not justification for launching military attacks on their homes and endangering their lives. This does not mean that the U.S. military cannot detain people, or question those who may have valuable information. However, where those individuals are not clearly combatants, the kind of force used in military operations and applicable Rules of Engagement (ROE) are inappropriate. Instead, law enforcement-style operations and rules of force should apply.
There is also evidence that insufficient consideration is given to alternatives to night raids, such as conducting raids in daytime hours or simply requesting individuals to voluntarily submit to questioning. With Special Forces and intelligence personnel increasingly in the lead, night raids may be a strongly preferred tactic not because of a lack of feasible alternatives, but because it is what these forces are good at. The availability and particular expertise of Special Forces, as well as their relationship to intelligence officials, biases commanders in favor of this tool—leading to an over-reliance on such raids and underestimation of their true costs.
As targeting and detentions broaden, we also found that many view raids as increasingly indiscriminate, arbitrary, and unjust, contributing to popular backlash that is readily exploited by militant groups. Such blowback, especially as it accrues and is inevitably politicized over time, also imperils the legitimacy and credibility of U.S. and international forces, as well as longer-term peace building efforts. Among political leaders in Afghanistan, this blowback exacts an enormous toll on diplomatic relations, undermining progress on key issues like the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership, which will govern U.S. forces' involvement beyond the 2014 pull-out date.
There is a disturbing parallel between these concerns and those surrounding drone strikes across the border in Pakistan, which have also increased dramatically in recent years. Like night raids, drone strikes are conducted largely in secret by intelligence forces, with little to no accountability and transparency, and making use of an ill-defined, potentially overbroad basis for targeting. Popular and political backlash, most evident in Pakistan, undermine U.S. development efforts and seriously diminish its legitimacy and political capital. As with night raids, recent short-term successes as well as the rapidly developed capacity of the CIA and U.S. military's drone programs may bias decision-makers and lead to systematic underestimation of these kinds of longer-term costs and consequences.
The dramatically expanded use of both night raids and drone strikes foreshadows a troubling, dangerous future for U.S. counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. These tactics bring the conflict directly into the homes of more and more civilians, and as our report on night raids documents, efforts to improve conduct are often overshadowed by the sheer increase in the number of operations as well as continued perceptions of impunity. Despite the fact that violence against civilians is still disproportionately carried out by the Taliban, expanded night raids will almost certainly have an outsized impact on Afghan feelings toward foreign forces. Without stronger accountability, less secrecy, and more creative thinking about how to effectively engage and protect civilians, the long-term impact of such operations will more likely than not undo any short-term tactical gains.