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Blowback in Kandahar

During a round of media interviews last month, Gen. David Petraeus released totals for the alleged results of nearly 3,000 “night raids” by Special Operations Forces (SOF) units over the 90 days from May through July: 365 “insurgent leaders” killed or captured, 1,355 Taliban “rank and file” fighters captured, and 1,031 killed.

Those figures were widely reported as highlighting the “successes” of SOF raids in at least hurting the Taliban.

But a direct correlation between the stepped up night raids in Kandahar province and a sharp fall-off in the proportion of IEDs being turned in by the local population indicates that the raids backfired badly, bolstering the Taliban’s hold on the population in Kandahar province.

Night raids, which are viewed as a violation of the sanctity of the home and generate large numbers of civilian casualties, are the single biggest factor in generating popular anger at U.S. and NATO forces, as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal conceded in his directive on the issue last March.

Nevertheless, McChrystal had increased the level of SOF raids from the 100 to 125 a month during the command of his predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, to 500 a month during 2009. And the figures released by Petraeus revealed that McChrystal had doubled the number of raids on homes again to 1,000 a month before he was relieved of duty in June.

The step up in night raids has been overwhelmingly concentrated on districts in and around Kandahar City. It began in April as a prelude to what was then being billed as the “make or break” campaign of the war.

The response of the civilian population in those districts can be discerned from data on the Taliban roadside bombs and the proportion turned in by the population. Increasing the ratio of total IEDs planted found as a result of tips from the population has been cited as a key indicator of winning the trust of the local population by Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, head of the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).

But JIEDDO’s monthly statistics on IED’s turned in by local residents as a percentage of total IEDs planted tell a very different story.

The percentage of Taliban roadside bombs turned in had been averaging 3.5 percent from November 2009 through March 2010, according to official statistics from JIEDDO. But as soon as the SOF raids began in Kandahar in April, the percentage of turn-ins fell precipitously to 1.5 percent, despite the fact that the number of IEDs remained about the same as the previous month.

The turn-in ratio continued to average 1.5 percent through July.

There is a similar correlation between a sudden increase in popular anger toward foreign troops in spring 2009 and a precipitous drop in the rate of turn-ins.

In the first four months of 2009, turn-ins had averaged 4.5 percent of IED incidents. But in early May 2009 a U.S. airstrike in Farah province killed between 97 and 147 civilians, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. As popular outrage over the biggest mass killing of civilians in the war spread across the country, the ratio of turn-ins fell to 2.1 percent of the total for the month, even though IEDs increased by less than 20 percent.

Then McChrystal took command and ordered a quadrupling of the number of night raids. The turn-in ratio continued to average just 2.2 percent for the next five months.

In Kandahar, as elsewhere in Afghanistan, popular anger at foreign troops was undoubtedly stoked by the inevitable killing and detention of the innocent people that accompanies SOF night raids.

According to the figures released by Petraeus, for every targeted individual killed or captured in the raids, three non-targeted individuals were killed and another four were detained.

Based on past cases of false reporting by SOF units, a large proportion of the 1,031 killed in the raids and identified as “insurgents” were simply neighbours who had come out of their homes with guns when they heard the raiders.

Gen. McChrystal referred to that chronic problem in a statement on his directive on night raids last March. “Instinctive responses” by an Afghan man to “defend his home and family are sometimes interpreted as insurgent acts, with tragic results,” McChyrstal said.

SOF units have routinely reported those killed under such circumstances as insurgents rather than as innocent civilians.

When an SOF unit raided the home of a low-level commander in Laghman province on Jan. 26, 2009, 13 men came out of nearby homes. They were all killed and later included in the tally of Taliban reported killed in the raid.

The problem of false reporting was brought to light most dramatically after a botched SOF raid in Gardez Feb. 12, when two men who emerged from buildings in the compound targeted by an SOF unit were shot and killed. Within hours of the raid, ISAF issued a statement describing the two men as “insurgents”.

That falsehood was later revealed only because the two men happened to be a police official and a government prosecutor. In the same incident, the SOF unit accidentally killed three women, two of whom were pregnant, but reported to headquarters that the women had been found tied up.

McChrystal defended the SOF unit against charges by eyewitnesses that its members had tried to cover up the killing, even after the head of the Afghan interior ministry investigation of the incident publicly declared that the testimony was credible.

The figure of 1,355 insurgents “captured” in the raids given out by the International Security Assistance Force is also highly misleading. In response to an IPS query about the figure, ISAF public affairs officer Maj. Sunset R. Belinsky confirmed that the figure “reflects insurgents or suspected insurgents captured during operations”.

In fact, the vast majority were simply swept up because they happened to be present in a house or compound targeted in a raid.

An ISAF press release Sep. 8 illustrates how such a larger number was accumulated. In a raid on the compound of a suspected “insurgent commander” in Paktika province Sep. 7, the SOF unit ordered all occupants to leave the compound and detained “several suspected insurgents” after “initial questioning”.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan have never released figures on what proportion of Afghans detained as suspected insurgents were eventually released because of lack of evidence. Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, who reviewed U.S. detainee policies in early 2009, was reported by The Guardian Oct. 14, 2009 to have concluded that two-thirds of the detainees still being held by the U.S. military as Taliban insurgents were innocent.

The claim of 365 “insurgent leaders” killed or captured is also highly misleading.

At his confirmation hearing in June, Petraeus referred to the targets of SOF raids as “middle and upper level Taliban and other extremist element leaders”.

That terminology was later abandoned, however. When questioned about the figure last month, an ISAF official, speaking on condition of anonymity, conceded that it was not clear what authority the targeted “leaders” had. There is no organisational diagram for the Taliban, the official told IPS, and Taliban fighters are not organised in military units.

The vast majority of those “leaders”, it appears, were low level Taliban personnel who are easily replaced.

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.

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Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

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