Night Raids: For Afghan Civilians, the Costs May Outweigh the Benefits

If the Taliban came to your house in the night, fully armed, and demanded food, would you feed them? You may have no choice. This does not make you a combatant. But it can leave you at risk of another visit in the night and detention by U.S. special operations forces.

In the last year, the U.S. military, together with its NATO partners, have dramatically increased the use of night raids, which includes night-time search, seizure, and (less commonly) kill operations. My organization, the Open Society Foundations, today released a report on night raids, together with our Afghan partner, The Liaison Office. While the report found significant improvements in the conduct of night raids, it suggests that these improvements may be outweighed by a growing toll on Afghan civilians, including an increasing number of civilians being detained on the raids.

Night raids have increased five-fold from February 2009 until the end of 2010. Statistics are not regularly released publicly but at their peak this summer, there may have been as many as 40 night raids in a single night in Afghanistan.

International military argue night raids are their most effective tools in disrupting insurgent networks. While individual night raids are unquestionably effective at getting insurgent leaders - with ever greater accuracy, our report agreed - the larger costs of night raids may outweigh the benefits.

Some military officials and analysts we interviewed suggested the targeted kill-capture campaign cannot hope to put the same pressure on insurgents as it did in Iraq because high level leaders can always flee to Pakistan. The bulk of the insurgents left in Afghanistan are low level fighters, easily replaced in a population that is continually inflamed against international forces by tactics like night raids.

Worse, our report suggests that many of those detained in night raids may be non-combatants, including those who are guilty only of providing food or shelter under duress. Civilians with tribal or family connections to insurgents, with possible information about insurgent activities, are frequently detained.

As one international official admitted to us: "If you can't get the guy you want, you get the guy that knows him." This is not only strategically unsound - it may result in ambiguous intelligence gains at the cost of high community outrage - but it raises legal concerns of potential indiscriminate detention. Further, once detained, even for brief periods of time, these non-combatants may suffer poor conditions, or even abuse when detainees are transferred to Afghan prisons where torture is widely used.

The human cost of night raids is not limited to detainees. Because these operations primarily target Afghan homes, or entire villages, civilians are inevitably affected. International forces have made many tactical and policy changes in the last year to reduce civilian casualties, among other important reforms. But with the number of raids that go on in Afghanistan, civilian casualties are inevitable.

Although most night raids are designed to capture, not kill, and significant efforts have been put into reducing the risk of civilian casualties, these are still among the most kinetic, most violent operations conducted by international military in Afghanistan. They can result in lasting trauma among communities subjected to them, and lasting ire against international forces and the Afghan government.

A former Special Forces commander suggested to me that he still has nightmares about night raids - and he wasn't on the receiving end.

By relying on night raids as their primary tool, special operations forces are driving the conflict into more and more people's homes. When those homes belong to civilians, not Taliban, it is surely counter-productive. Not only does it create enormous immediate human costs for Afghan communities, but it is exacerbating political tensions with the Afghan government.

The issue of night raids is one of the key stumbling blocks in developing a U.S.-Afghan partnership agreement. The Afghan government has long objected to night raids, but it has been pushed to its limit by the ramp up in night raids in the last year. Not seeing the security gains that the U.S. military has promised, fearful that these night raids may compromise its reconciliation efforts, and tired of blowback from an angry public, the Afghan government is standing firm on this issue and as a result U.S. long-term security operations may be compromised in Afghanistan.

The best move for the U.S. at this point is to ensure that only senior insurgents are targeted on raids, and to seek to reduce the number of night raids in favor of alternative detention methods. No one is arguing that suspected combatants should not be detained, or even that those with information on insurgent activities might be questioned. But night raids should be one of many tools in the box, not the default means for detention, particularly when non-combatants are involved or likely to be present.

International military argue that switching to other detention means, such as "day raids" would allow the individual to get away or might result in a firefight that would be dangerous to both troops and civilians present. While this may be true in some situations, in many of the night raids we have documented other methods of detention were clearly available. In late 2010, the homes of two Al Jazeera journalists in two provinces were raided at night, despite that both of them had press passes and regularly went to U.S. military bases when called.

Alternative detention mechanisms should be especially emphasized in more stable areas of Afghanistan, where the government has control and where regular law enforcement options are available. In many areas of Afghanistan, particularly urban areas, the Afghan government regularly detains individuals, many of them dangerous terrorists, without having to resort to "black op" levels of force.

Our report's conclusions point the U.S. and NATO to what they already appear to know, but do not put into practice. The U.S. and NATO's own operational guidance (tactical directives) require that alternatives to night raids are sought. If they were to follow their own rules they might quickly find that from the village to the Palace, Afghan anger at the international military would quickly dissipate.