The South Asia Channel

No more night terrors

An airstrike in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, yesterday is estimated to have killed as many as 27 civilians. The news of this airstrike has yet again stoked questions of whether a counterinsurgency strategy can be effectively carried out in Afghanistan, and if not, what the overall prospects of success in Afghanistan really are. Reducing airstrikes is ...

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

An airstrike in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, yesterday is estimated to have killed as many as 27 civilians. The news of this airstrike has yet again stoked questions of whether a counterinsurgency strategy can be effectively carried out in Afghanistan, and if not, what the overall prospects of success in Afghanistan really are. Reducing airstrikes is key: these are the most visible and publicly inflammatory tactics that international forces use. But airstrikes, or the conduct of the coalition forces operating in Marjah, are only part of the picture; other practices that are equally important in terms of rebuilding Afghan trust and moving toward stability in Afghanistan have been routinely ignored and not seriously addressed.

The most serious outstanding example of this is the continued reliance on night raids, which my organization, the Open Society Institute, explores in a recently released report. Night raids are when military forces, usually a mixed group of internationals and Afghans, force entry into an Afghan home in the middle of the night, search the premises and usually detain one or more men of the family. Reports of abuse — punching, slapping, or other mistreatment — during these raids are frequent. According to the UN, at least 98 civilians were killed in these incidents in 2009.

Though night raids do not result in as many deaths as airstrikes, they can be as lethal to public opinion, if not more so. In terms of creating enemies, it’s hard to do worse than breaking into someone’s house at night, taking actions that are viewed as violating the women of the household, and hauling family members to unknown detention sites for weeks to months.

I was recently speaking to a group of Afghan National Army commanders who had just been trained in new counterinsurgency strategy about the importance of protecting and respecting civilians. He told me I should save my lessons for international forces. "Just last week they raided my house and three members of my family were taken away," he shouted, obviously enraged. "If they continue like this, soon I will become an insurgent rather than a counterinsurgent!"

Our research showed that even if the number of airstrikes decreases, night raids perpetuate Afghan impressions that international forces are abusive outsiders who wantonly or purposefully kill Afghans with no accountability to the law. These practices contradict international forces’ public promises of population protection, and make it harder for international forces to speak credibly when incidents like the airstrike in Uruzgan do happen.

No one questions that it is necessary to detain and question suspects who might be aiding and abetting the ongoing insurgency. But the broader strategic goals of supporting the rule of law and regaining Afghan trust are seriously undermined when the default procedure for doing so is to break into homes at night with guns, dogs, and back-up, and absolutely no mechanism for monitoring or follow-up of reported abuse. For several years there have been serious concerns about the conduct of pro-government forces, particularly of U.S. Special Forces, intelligence personnel, and local militias, involved in these raids. Yet even high level officials have found it virtually impossible to identify those involved in a raid to hold them accountable.

There is reportedly a new directive on night raids, though still classified, which addresses some of these concerns. This is an important step, but the fact that this new directive has remained classified suggests that international forces have still not gotten the message that the lack of accountability over these practices is a large part of what is so unacceptable.

Though the continued pressure on airstrikes and on the overall conduct of operations like those in Marjah and in Uruzgan is important, it should not come at the cost of ignoring other practices that equally influence the effectiveness of the overall strategy in Afghanistan. In part II of this blog, I’ll go into greater depth on what we found were the serious concerns and fixes for night raids.

Erica Gaston is a human rights lawyer for the Open Society Institute, specializing in civilian casualty issues.  She is based in Kabul.

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