Night raids belie McChrystal's new image
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - General Stanley McChrystal has recently acquired the image of a
master strategist of the population-sensitive counterinsurgency, reducing
civilian casualties from air strikes and insisting that troops avoid firing
when civilians might be hit during the recent offensive in Helmand Province.
One recent press story even referred to a "McChrystal Doctrine" that focuses on
"winning over civilians rather than killing insurgents".
But there is a glaring contradiction between McChrystal's new counterinsurgency
credentials and his actual policy toward the politically explosive issue of
night raids on private homes by Special Operations Forces (SOF) units targeting
Since he took over as top commander in Afghanistan, McChrystal has not only
refused to curb those raids but has increased them
dramatically. Even after they triggered a new round of angry protests from
villagers, students and Afghan President Hamid Karzai himself, he has given no
signal of reducing his support for them.
Two moves by McChrystal last year reveal his strong commitment to night raids
as a tactic. After becoming commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) and United States forces last May, he approved a more than four-fold
increase in those operations, from 20 in May to 90 in November, according to a
December 16 report in the Los Angeles Times. One of McChrystal's spokesmen,
Tadd Sholtis, acknowledged to IPS that the jump in number of night raids
reflected McChrystal's guidance.
McChrystal deliberately protected night raids from political pressure to reduce
or even stop them altogether. In his "initial assessment" last August, he
devoted an entire annex to the subject of civilian casualties and collateral
damage, but made no mention night raids as a problem in that regard.
As a result of McChrystal's decisions, civilian deaths from night raids have
spiked, even as those from air strikes were being reduced. Night raids caused
more than half of the nearly 600 civilian deaths attributable to coalition
forces in 2009, according to United Nations and Afghan government estimates,.
Those raids, which also violate the sanctity of the Afghan home, have become
the primary Afghan grievance against the US military. As long ago as May 2007,
Carlotta Gall and David Sanger described in the New York Times how night raids
had provoked an entire village in Herat province to become so angry with the US
military that its men began carrying out military operations.
By 2008, the targets of the SOF raids had shifted from higher-level and
mid-level al-Qaeda and Taliban officials to low-level insurgents, especially
those working on manufacturing and planting Improvised Explosive Devices (IED),
the organization's main form of attack against foreign military personnel. That
shift accelerated as the number of raids ballooned under McChrystal.
The inevitable botched raids killing large numbers of civilians brought a new
wave of protests. After a December 2009 raid killed at least 12 civilians in
Laghman province, according to an investigation by the Afghanistan Independent
Human Rights Commission, students at Nangarhar University blocked the highway
between Jalalabad and Kabul for several hours.
In late January, a new directive was announced to the press addressing the
night raids issue. The text of the directive has not been released in full, but
excerpts released March 5 include an acknowledgement by McChrystal that "nearly
every Afghan I talk to mentions them as the single greatest irritant".
But the January directive fell well short of forcing changes in the way the
raids were carried out to stop civilian deaths. Instead, it called for putting
Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the lead on all night raids, and
notifying Afghan government officials, ANSF and "local elders" in advance of
any raid - "wherever possible" and "whenever possible".
SOF commanders are supposed to justify any operation that does not apply these
standards, according to Sholtis. But those commanders have long argued that
telling village elders about such raids in advance would result in their
targets being tipped off.
It is unlikely that they would be denied permission after invoking that risk.
As for putting an Afghan face on the raids, Afghan Special Forces and other
Afghan military personnel have been accompanying SOF for years, but that has
not prevented the continued killing of civilians. In a report issued last year,
the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission documented cases of raids
involving Afghan Special Forces in which civilians were killed in September
2007, January 2008 and April 2008.
Another night raid on February 12, soon after the new directive had been
issued, showed clearly that it had not changed anything. The raid, obviously
carried out without informing local officials, not only blundered into a family
celebration and killed two pregnant women and a teenage girl, but also provoked
others in the vicinity to come out of their houses with guns to see who had
intruded on their neighbors.
The SOF community had long asserted that anyone who comes out of their house
during a raid must be an insurgent and can therefore be killed. But as former
Marine officer Tim Lynch, who has lived in Afghanistan since 2003, observed
after an errant raid in January 2009 killed 13 civilians, coming to the aid of
a neighbor is expected of male Pashtuns under the "code of Pashtunwali".
McChrystal's directive expressed regret about such killing of bystanders during
raids but did not forbid it.
Why would McChrystal continue to tolerate a tactic that is so clearly at odds
with the population-centric approach to counterinsurgency that he has publicly
McChrystal has only a brief period before President Barack Obama's exit
strategy comes into play in mid-2011. He desperately needs to be able to
convince the American public during that period that he is making progress.
Like General David Petraeus in Iraq in 2007-08, he needs to be able to cite
statistical trends, such as a reduction in Taliban IED attacks, that would
demonstrate such progress to congress and the news media.
He evidently hopes that night raids, by weakening the Taliban military
organization, might influence those statistical trends. Reducing the level of
Afghan hatred of Americans by eliminating night raids wouldn't figure in those
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.