Gen. Stanley McChrystal has recently acquired the image of a master strategist of the population-sensitive counterinsurgency, reducing civilian casualties from airstrikes 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 suspected Taliban.
Since he took over as top commander in Afghanistan, McChrystal has not only refused to curb those raids but has increased them dramatically. And 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 NATO and U.S. forces last May, he approved a more than fourfold increase in those operations, from 20 in May to 90 in November, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times Dec. 16. One of McChrystal’s spokesmen, Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, acknowledged to IPS that the level of night raids during that period has reflected McChrystal’s guidance.
Then McChrystal deliberately protected night raids from political pressures 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. According to United Nations and Afghan government estimates, night raids caused more than half of the nearly 600 civilian deaths attributable to coalition forces in 2009.
Those raids, which also violate the sanctity of the Afghan home, have become the primary Afghan grievance against the U.S. 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 U.S. military that men began carrying out military operations against it.
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 IEDs, 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 Mar. 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”, respectively.
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 Feb. 12, soon after the new directive had been issued, showed clearly that the directive 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 neighbours.
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 neighbour 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 embraced?
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 U.S. public during that period that he is making progress.
Like Gen. 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 of the Taliban military organisation, might influence those statistical trends. Reducing the level of Afghan hatred of Americans by eliminating night raids wouldn’t figure in those statistics.
GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. 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.