Afghanistan night-raid deal: Does it handcuff US forces?

While the deal gives Afghanistan legal and military 'ownership' over the night raids, on a practical level US forces still have leverage and flexibility, especially to react quickly to intelligence.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
US soldiers from Charlie troop, 4-73 Cavalry Regiment, 4th brigade, 82nd Airborne division look at maps before a joint mission with the Afghan Army in the Maiwand district, Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan on April 7.
Omar Sobhani/Reuters
US General John Allen, NATO's commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan, speaks during a ceremony to sign an agreement in Kabul on April 8.

The Pentagon has just negotiated its way out of a major stumbling block in its long-term relationship with the Afghan government: night raids conducted by US forces.

Under an agreement reached Sunday, Afghan commandos will now “take the lead” in night operations, heavily supported by US special operations forces. An Afghan judicial panel will also have to sign off on these raids with a warrant. 

Though the agreement is a vital to an Afghan government under intense political pressure from civilians concerned about the intrusiveness of the raids, in practical terms not much is likely to change from the perspective of US troops. 

Though the new memorandum of understanding now requires that the military obtain a warrant within 72 hours of conducting a night raid, these warrants may also be issued after a raid in cases in which intelligence requires quick action.

“That leaves the door open for some flexibility,” says Jeffrey Dressler, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “So if there’s something that needs to be done quickly, and we can’t necessarily wait three days, then it can be sort of retroactive.” 

Will this sort of flexibility delegitimize the process in the eyes of the Afghans? Mr. Dressler argues that it does not, but rather “provides an outlet for quick emergency action.” 

He points out that the Afghan judicial panel could also refuse to issue a warrant retroactively, which would then require the release of any suspected insurgents scooped up in the raids. 

Yet US forces are likely to have some measure of leverage in the issuing of warrants, senior officials say. Though Afghan forces have long been “in the lead” for a variety of missions, including securing the capital city of Kabul, Afghan troops still rely on US forces for nearly all of their operating needs, including supplies, intelligence analysis, and money for salaries. 

The greater worry, however, is that the process of securing warrants might lead to leaks that could tip off insurgents that they may be the target of a raid, say some officials. 

Another key question is going to be “exactly how well these Afghan judicial panels function,” Dressler says. Will the military “be able to wait three days for an Afghan judicial panel to authorize a raid? I think that’s not always going to be realistic.”

Yet in conducting the raids themselves, Afghan special forces are widely considered some of the best-trained and most effective units operating in the country. 

In recent congressional testimony, Gen. John Allen, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, pointed out that in the 2,200 night raids conducted last year, Afghan forces took part in most of them, with a civilian casualty rate of less than 1.5 percent.

This sort of competence could in turn help US forces carry out a smoother exit strategy. “With conventional Afghan forces, you really have to drill down with what it means to be ‘partnered’ ” with US forces, Dressler says. 

Not so with these special-forces commandos, military officials add. “The Afghan special operations units have developed at extraordinary speed and are manned by courageous and capable operators,” Allen noted in a statement during the signing of the memorandum Sunday.

US officials are also hoping that the new agreement undercuts Taliban propaganda efforts now that Afghan troops officially “own” these operations, Dressler says. 

“The important thing here more than anything is symbolic,” he adds. “If something goes wrong the Afghans can step up and say that this wasn’t an American operation or American forces preying on the Afghan populace.” 

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