“Open this gate! We are from the Afghan National Army!”
It was the midnight call that Afghan villagers have learned to dread, though this night raid would turn out less aggressive than usual.
Following a tipoff that a compound housed Taliban bombmakers, night vision-enabled Afghan and American troops stalked the sandy lanes of Kuhak village, part of the lush Arghandab Valley in southern Kandahar Province. Overhead an American surveillance drone hovered, relaying images to a nearby control room of men carrying boxes and scurrying across the courtyard.
Ten minutes passed. The soldiers waited outside the gate.
By the time the residents opened it, the only people inside were a one-legged man, two women, and several children.
The 20 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne’s B Company searched the compound but, lacking a bomb-sniffing dog, their search for explosives was inconclusive. They apologized to the family, handed out some blankets as a gesture of aid, and walked back to their base.
Taming the night raid
New restrictions on night raids handed down in March by Gen. Stanley McChrystal – part of a broader strategy to prioritize protecting civilians over killing insurgents – are meant to make the surprise searches less invasive, but may also be hampering their effectiveness.
According to the new regulations, Afghan security forces must in the front of every raid, ritually impure animals – such as dogs – are banned, and village elders must be warned “wherever possible.” Soldiers can only barge into compounds after exhausting other options and have proof that the inhabitants inside are not cooperating.
US soldiers, however, have complained that Afghan security forces are at best lax and often brutal; dogs are essential in sniffing out explosives; and village elders sometimes end up tipping off the Taliban. This gives insurgent fighters a head start to mask their bombmaking activities or blend into the population.
“They make it really hard to fight because they¹re very restrictive,” says Sgt. Christopher Gerhart of the 82nd Airborne, referring to the new rules. “For us to legally go into a house, we’d have to coordinate Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police escorts, allowing the bad guys time to disappear.”
“When we came for the Afghan police, we usually have to go pick them up, escort them to the scene,” Gerhart continues.
Prior to the raid on the compound last month, Company B spent an hour and a half convincing an Afghan commander to join the raid, who argued that some of his men had already done a full day’s patrol and it was too late at night.
'If we scare the population, it's done'
Yet night raids have caused the deaths of more than half of the 600 civilians killed in Afghanistan by coalition forces in 2009, according to the United Nations. The “gentler” regulations are meant to lower the death toll, win over villagers, and inspire tipoffs against the Taliban, who often enjoy shelter and logistical support from locals.
“We will never win the tactical fight, so if we scare the population, it’s done,” says Col. Guy Jones. “At Joe Soldier level, these regulations are hard because all he¹s told is ‘No.’ [But] they don’t have a wider view of all the considerations that go into such a decision.”
The switch in policy comes as part of a broader effort to win over Afghans. For example, when it comes to detaining Afghans, commanders are directed to show new sensitivity and show locals evidence of guilt rather than just taking people away. Officers attend councils by village elders with photographs implicating the men they detained. In the event of a false imprisonment, detainees were flown back from the detention facility in Bagram and presented to the village elders.
Still, making the night raids less intrusive may not suffice to win locals over. A raid is still a raid, after all.
“General McChrystal¹s population-centric counterinsurgency strategy is an improvement,” says Christopher Candland, the co-director of the South Asia Studies Program at Wellesley College. “But the operation of US forces in Afghanistan continues to be the major incitement to militancy.”