“Open this gate! We are from the Afghan National Army!”
It was the midnight call that every villager in Kandahar’s lush agricultural Arghandab Valley, the scene of almost daily bomb attacks and a staging-point for Taliban fighters, dreads. Following a tip-off that the targeted compound contained Taliban bomb makers, night-vision enabled American and Afghan soldiers stalked through the sandy lanes of Kuhak village to a refrain of barking dogs.
But by the time that the compound’s residents had opened the gate ten minutes later, the only person to greet the troops was a one-legged man. Inside, two women and several children lurked fearfully.
Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne’s B Company searched the compound but, lacking a bomb-sniffing dog, their search was inconclusive. Looking sheepish, they apologized to the family, handed out some Afghani notes they dubbed “humanitarian assistance” and walked back to their base.
The troops were operating under recently modified regulations intended to improve relations with civilians. Initially introduced in March by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, they outlived his dramatic sacking in June.
Night raids have long alienated American troops from the civilians they intend to protect, yet the new rules make the operations harder to orchestrate and, soldiers complain, far less effective.
“The fatal flaws in the McChrystal strategy were his presumptions that villagers welcome foreign military soldiers in their midst and that he would have enough troops to pacify the countryside,” George Wilson, a veteran military correspondent, told EurasiaNet.org. “It takes too many troops to provide protection around the clock and people resent even well-behaved foreign troops in their neighborhoods.”
The new regulations stipulate that Afghan security forces front every raid, ban ritually impure animals such as dogs from the missions, and ask that village elders be warned “wherever possible.” American soldiers complain that Afghan security forces are at best lax and often brutal; dogs are essential in sniffing out explosives; and village elders are often hand-in-glove with the Taliban.
The sensitive US government cables released by WikiLeaks reveal that Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Kabul-based US diplomats had been signaling for at least two years for “kill or capture” missions to be terminated. Often driven by poor intelligence, night raids were resulting in dead or outraged Afghan civilians, thus proving counter-productive in winning over local populations. Such operations caused the deaths of over half the 600 civilians killed in Afghanistan by coalition forces in 2009, according to the UN.
But the new regulations “make it really hard to fight because they’re very restrictive,” said Sgt. Christopher Gerhart of the 82nd Airborne. “If the enemy wants to come out and shoot at us, they just grab their rifles and shoot at us. For us to legally go into a house, we’d have to coordinate Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police escorts allowing the bad guys time to disappear.”
“At Joe Soldier level, these regulations are hard because all he’s told is ‘No,’” said Lt. Col. Guy Jones, commander of 82nd Airborne’s Second Battalion. “They don’t have a wider view of all the considerations that go into such a decision.”
Jones is acutely aware of the tradeoff, however. “We will never win the tactical fight, so if we scare the population, it’s done,” he added, punching his desk for emphasis.
Most night raids are carried out by Special Forces units operating outside the remit of NATO. Such tactics fuel suspicion, said an Afghan political analyst who requested anonymity fearing he could lose access to officials: “The only time their presence registers on the public chart is when a family emerges, complaining that their men were taken away overnight by Americans.”
“Americans stumbling into a village at night pose more risk than gain,” said Wilson, the military correspondent.
Indeed, near-frantic diplomatic reports released through WikiLeaks signal the damage night raids were inflicting on relations between the US and local communities. In one January 2009 operation in Zabul province, local elders were so furious that “they refused to bury the bodies and threatened to display them on Highway 1,” Afghanistan’s main north-south highway, one report noted.
But under the new rules, American soldiers carrying out ground raids say they are “expected to impose First World regulations on a system that is Third World at best.”
“This isn’t America where the DEA wants to do a drug bust, they call the local precinct and get two officers in 15 minutes,” said the 82nd Airborne’s Gerhart. “When we call for the Afghan police, we usually have to go pick them up, escort them to the scene. ... It’s like nannying children.”
Iason Athanasiadis is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.