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U.S. Wants To Avoid Ban on Afghan Night Missions

  • March 29, 2012
  • New America Foundation
  • In the News
Source:  U.S. News and World Report
Post:  U.S. Wants To Avoid Ban on Afghan Night Missions
CNAS Expert:  New America Foundation

Thousands of times last year, long after night fell over Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan troops stormed houses in hot pursuit of the Taliban and al Qaeda. Of the 2,200 night missions in 2011, 83 percent resulted in the capture of an enemy lieutenant or senior leader. During those raids, rarely was a single shot ever fired. 

Pentagon brass and top military analysts call night raids crucial to the Obama administration's strategy of dismantling and defeating the Taliban and its terrorist network allies. Now, U.S. officials are scurrying to keep ownership of the night time hours, and are in sensitive talks with Afghan leaders, who say the raids trample on Muslim culture and traditions--and Afghan sovereignty.

U.S. Special Operations Command chief Adm. William McRaven has said the attacks are "very valuable." Earlier this month, McRaven explained to a Senate panel that U.S. and NATO commanders use the attacks to nab high-value enemy leaders who "generally bed down" at night, making them easier to capture.

For Washington, an Afghan government ban would be what John Nagl, an Iraq war vet and Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, would call "a very clear red line," meaning a reason to end the decade-long war.

Matthew Irvine, Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security, labels night raids as the U.S. military's "biggest tactical and intelligence advantages" in Afghanistan.

Nagl says it is "impossible to overstate how crucial night raids are to U.S. operations."

U.S. officials contend their Afghan partners have been given unprecedented roles in the raids. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government see it much differently.

"The fight against terrorism in our country has led to some activities which are against our national sovereignty," Karzai said last Thursday during a speech to a graduating class of Afghan army cadets.

"We are working now to halt night raids in Afghan houses," Karzai said. "The security of Afghanistan must be provided by the sons of Afghanistan, according to the constitution."

U.S. military and Obama administration officials are hesitant to discuss the issue with reporters, or even in front of congressional panels, because talks about the missions have reached "a pretty delicate moment," according to Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO forces.

"The Afghan National Security Forces have been taking over a greater lead in their own security operations and we will continue to encourage and assist them do so in this area," says U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a NATO spokesman in Kabul.

To that end, McRaven told numerous senators that Afghan commandos now are always "the first forces through the door."

NATO is in the midst of creating a dozen "Afghan strike forces," Cummings tells U.S. News & World Report. "Just in the last three months, we have come a very long way in creating greater capacity amongst the Afghans to conduct night operations in a very credible way."

U.S. officials and analysts acknowledge publicly that the night time missions do not sit well among indigenous leaders and citizens. But, they argue the raids limit civilian casualties.

"The high success rate of getting the target and low-risk percentages of civilian casualties, one would argue for the power of night operations, again preserving life and reducing civilian casualties in all other kinds of operations," Cummings says.

For instance, targeting individuals at night with commando missions means NATO commanders can rely less on drone missile strikes. "And drone strikes," Nagl says, "do generate civilian casualties."

Several sources say the two nations are likely to announce a deal soon.

"I believe there is a way to finesse this through the use of warrants and the Afghan courts," Nagl says.

The coming deal likely will give Afghan judges a role in determining which missions get the green light, as well as more sway to indigenous forces the actual raids. That appears likely, with Cummings saying Afghanistan's constitution will "be a big part of the future of night operations."

In typical U.S. military can-do fashion, Cummings predicts "we will get this right," though he warns "it will take some time."

"The outcome will be night operations that continue to contribute to this campaign with Afghans taking an increasingly leading role in the process, which is completely appropriate," he says.