The problems of night raids

This week, International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan (ISAF) admitted that U.S. and Afghan Special Forces killed two pregnant women, a teenage girl, a police officer and his brother during a February 12, 2010 raid in Gardez. The incident raises serious questions about whether the recent policy changes on night raids will meaningfully reduce the harm they ...

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

This week, International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan (ISAF) admitted that U.S. and Afghan Special Forces killed two pregnant women, a teenage girl, a police officer and his brother during a February 12, 2010 raid in Gardez. The incident raises serious questions about whether the recent policy changes on night raids will meaningfully reduce the harm they cause, or improve oversight of them, as was intended.

A bare three weeks before this raid took place, ISAF issued a new tactical directive specific to night raids. The new tactical directive was intended to reduce the risk of these incidents happening by setting a higher threshold for night raids to be authorized and encouraging troops to only use the amount of force necessary when authorized. The new directive also was intended to improve some of the issues of oversight and accountability for these raids by improving coordination between the units carrying out the raids and the commanders in the area of operations, creating mechanisms for affected families to find out what happened to those who were detained, and reinforcing to ISAF command the need for transparency and accountability on these incidents.

What happened on February 12, and in the weeks that followed, appears to break not only the letter but the spirit of this new directive. A raid was authorized against what all sides now agree was an innocent family, raising a question as to how this raid met the supposedly high threshold for carrying out such actions in the first place. While it's hard to second-guess what levels of force are "necessary" in any situation, what is clear is that here the level of force used against a social gathering left five dead and caused significant property damage. No one at the scene was left with any means to find out what happened or why they were targeted.

This week, International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan (ISAF) admitted that U.S. and Afghan Special Forces killed two pregnant women, a teenage girl, a police officer and his brother during a February 12, 2010 raid in Gardez. The incident raises serious questions about whether the recent policy changes on night raids will meaningfully reduce the harm they cause, or improve oversight of them, as was intended.

A bare three weeks before this raid took place, ISAF issued a new tactical directive specific to night raids. The new tactical directive was intended to reduce the risk of these incidents happening by setting a higher threshold for night raids to be authorized and encouraging troops to only use the amount of force necessary when authorized. The new directive also was intended to improve some of the issues of oversight and accountability for these raids by improving coordination between the units carrying out the raids and the commanders in the area of operations, creating mechanisms for affected families to find out what happened to those who were detained, and reinforcing to ISAF command the need for transparency and accountability on these incidents.

What happened on February 12, and in the weeks that followed, appears to break not only the letter but the spirit of this new directive. A raid was authorized against what all sides now agree was an innocent family, raising a question as to how this raid met the supposedly high threshold for carrying out such actions in the first place. While it’s hard to second-guess what levels of force are "necessary" in any situation, what is clear is that here the level of force used against a social gathering left five dead and caused significant property damage. No one at the scene was left with any means to find out what happened or why they were targeted.

The ISAF after-report of the incident erroneously claimed that only insurgents had been killed in the raid. ISAF personnel later told journalists and independent monitors that the women "found" dead were killed in an honor killing by the family. If this family had not been well connected enough to raise a complaint, and if one journalist had not taken an interest in investigating the incident, this story might never have been contradicted.

It is troubling that a raid took place so soon after the new restrictions were released when all forces, and particularly the Special Operations Forces (SOF) most involved in these raids, should have been paying the most attention. The incident also underlines one of the more serious issues that the directive overlooked: concerns about misinformation.

As noted earlier in this blog, my organization, the Open Society Institute, recently carried out a study on concerns with the practice of night raids. Throughout our research, we persistently heard complaints of families who had been targeted, men of the household arrested, and then released, without any evidence of why they were held. Several of the families we interviewed said their houses were raided not just once but two, three, four, and in one case, seven times. In each case, they said, they were released either without explanation or with regrets that, "Sorry, we got the wrong guy." When we have tried to raise these issues with ISAF the standard response has been an outright denial: when a night raid is conducted, they claim, there’s no mistaken identity. We always get our guy.

The lack of transparency over these raids and any evidence against the targets has made it hard to rebut such assertions. But the few well documented cases that have been exposed, like this one, beg the question of how many other innocent families are attacked in these raids. Without any meaningful process or accountability, there’s no way to know.

Erica Gaston is a human rights lawyer based in Kabul, Afghanistan, consulting on civilian casualties issues for the Open Society Institute.  

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