Breaking down doors in Afghanistan

Today International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan (ISAF) released an unclassified version of the new directive on night raids that it issued at the end of January. As I wrote last week, responding to Afghan community concerns over night raids is absolutely essential on both a human rights and a strategic level. ISAF has stepped up in ...

JOHN D MCHUGH/AFP/Getty Images
JOHN D MCHUGH/AFP/Getty Images

Today International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan (ISAF) released an unclassified version of the new directive on night raids that it issued at the end of January. As I wrote last week, responding to Afghan community concerns over night raids is absolutely essential on both a human rights and a strategic level. ISAF has stepped up in issuing this directive. But if the night raids issue is not also taken up by those Afghan and foreign political officials who have control over the other non-ISAF actors involved in this practice, it will not be enough to address Afghan outrage over this practice.

My organization, the Open Society Institute, recently released a report on night raids, based on research we conducted in the southeast of Afghanistan. We found that despite significant policy changes by international forces to reduce harm to civilians -- reductions in airstrikes, for example -- the lack of any real movement on night raids leaves a gaping hole in the new counterinsurgency strategy. Night raids can generate enormous hostility among local populations, in one stroke undoing months of goodwill. From a human rights and civil society perspective, their persistent use over the last eight years raises serious concerns about how much progress authorities in Afghanistan are making in providing basic fair treatment.

Today International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan (ISAF) released an unclassified version of the new directive on night raids that it issued at the end of January. As I wrote last week, responding to Afghan community concerns over night raids is absolutely essential on both a human rights and a strategic level. ISAF has stepped up in issuing this directive. But if the night raids issue is not also taken up by those Afghan and foreign political officials who have control over the other non-ISAF actors involved in this practice, it will not be enough to address Afghan outrage over this practice.

My organization, the Open Society Institute, recently released a report on night raids, based on research we conducted in the southeast of Afghanistan. We found that despite significant policy changes by international forces to reduce harm to civilians — reductions in airstrikes, for example — the lack of any real movement on night raids leaves a gaping hole in the new counterinsurgency strategy. Night raids can generate enormous hostility among local populations, in one stroke undoing months of goodwill. From a human rights and civil society perspective, their persistent use over the last eight years raises serious concerns about how much progress authorities in Afghanistan are making in providing basic fair treatment.

The new directive recognizes the importance of this issue for Afghan communities: "Despite their effectiveness and operational value, night raids come at a steep cost in terms of the perceptions of the Afghan people." It also noted that even where there is no damage or direct injury to affected families, "Afghans can feel deeply violated and dishonored, making winning their support that much more difficult."

Ordering commanders to "explore all other feasible options first," the directive suggests that night raids — at least in their most aggressive and intrusive form — should be a measure of last resort. The directive is not specific on what type of alternative detention procedures are envisioned, but our report recommended that to the extent possible they incorporate regular law enforcement practices  — for example conducting search operations during the daytime with the minimum amount of force necessary, providing some notice of the charges or reasons for detention, and signaling how families can learn what happened to those detained.

Another significant improvement introduced in the directive is the hint that more will be done to address the lack of visibility over what forces are involved. The new directive states: "Property seized or damaged must be recorded, detailed receipts with point-of-contact provided to local elders or other leaders within the compound, and in the case of any damage, instructions on how to claim compensation." One of the biggest concerns with past night raids has been that it has been virtually impossible to identify which forces were involved, and to hold them accountable for any concerns about conduct. This is particularly because so many of the raids have been conducted as a part of Special Operations, with even the local ISAF commanders unaware of when these forces were conducting raids in their areas. To the extent that this reform (and I hope even more extensive reporting requirements in the classified version) can improve accountability both through the chain of command and to affected communities, it will go along way in addressing the major problems posed by night raids.

Yet though these changes are encouraging and demonstrate that ISAF is taking the issue seriously, I’m worried that this directive only reaches half of the actors engaged in this practice, and therefore only half of the problem. The new directive suggests that Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be given a greater role in the operational planning and execution of these raids, but does not suggest that any greater measures will be taken to ensure better conduct and accountability for those Afghan forces and officials involved.

Though many Afghan communities have long suggested it is more appropriate to have Afghan forces conducting house searches, putting an Afghan face on the tactic is not a blank check. When Afghan forces steal or damage property, disrespect Afghan citizens, or engage in abuse, Afghan communities are still outraged. Further, where these raids are conducted jointly by Afghan and international forces, international forces are guilty by association if they do not prevent accompanying Afghan forces from behaving poorly or breaking the law.

Equally problematic, there appear to be no efforts to address the conduct of Afghan forces or officials involved in detention and interrogation of those seized during these raids. Reports of abuse, and even outright torture, at the hands of Afghan detention officials are rife.  Afghan communities angry about night raids do not draw a distinction between mistreatment at the point of capture and mistreatment by these other officials further down the line. Therefore for international forces, and their civilian counterparts, to sufficiently address this community anger, they must also look beyond problems at the point of capture.

Finally, beyond the conduct and accountability of Afghan actors involved, the elephant in the room on this debate is that international military are not the only ones leading and conducting these raids. Our research suggests that many intelligence officials, often accompanied by irregular local militias, are also responsible for some of these night raids. The new directive obviously could not apply to night raids conducted by these actors because ISAF does not have authority over these officials. But other foreign civilian authorities do. These civilian authorities should be equally concerned about the negative impact this practice has on rule of law development and the overall counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan.

ISAF should be applauded for having made efforts to get its own house in order on this practice, but unless its boldness is matched by their foreign and Afghan civilian counterparts who do have control over these other actors, Afghan concerns and resentment over night raids will continue.

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

More from Foreign Policy

Bill Clinton and Joe Biden  at a meeting of the U.S. Congressional delegation to the NATO summit in Spain on July 7, 1998.

Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis

The greatest tragedy about Russia’s potential invasion is how easily it could have been avoided.

A report card is superimposed over U.S. President Joe Biden.

Is Biden’s Foreign Policy Grade A Material?

More than 30 experts grade the U.S. president’s first year of foreign policy.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gives a press briefing.

Defining the Biden Doctrine

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan sat down with FP to talk about Russia, China, relations with Europe, and year one of the Biden presidency.

Ukrainian servicemen taking part in the armed conflict with Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk region of the country attend the handover ceremony of military heavy weapons and equipment in Kiev on November 15, 2018.

The West’s Weapons Won’t Make Any Difference to Ukraine

U.S. military equipment wouldn’t realistically help Ukrainians—or intimidate Putin.