New light shed on US's night raids
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - During a round of media interviews last month, General 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", 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 improvised explosive devices
(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 US and North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO)
forces, as General Stanley McChrystal conceded in his directive on the issue
Nevertheless, McChrystal had increased the level of SOF raids to 500 a month
during 2009 from the 100 to 125 a month during the command of his predecessor,
General David McKiernan. 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 Major General Michael Oates, head of the Pentagon's
Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).
But JIEDDO's monthly statistics on IEDs 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% 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%, 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% 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
In the first four months of 2009, turn-ins had averaged 4.5% of IED incidents.
But in early May 2009, a US 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% of the
total for the month, even though IEDs increased by less than 20%.
Then McChrystal took command and ordered a quadrupling of the number of night
raids. The turn-in ratio continued to average just 2.2% for the next five
In Kandahar, as elsewhere in Afghanistan, popular anger at foreign troops was
undoubtedly stoked by the inevitable killing and detention of 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 neighbors
who had come out of their homes with guns when they heard the raiders.
McChrystal referred to that severe 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", McChrystal 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 January 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 on February 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, the International Security Assistance Force (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 ISAF is
also highly misleading. In response to an Inter Press Service (IPS) query about
the figure, ISAF public affairs officer Major Sunset R Belinsky confirmed that
the figure "reflects insurgents or suspected insurgents captured during
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 on September 8 illustrates how such a larger number was
accumulated. In a raid on the compound of a suspected "insurgent commander" in
Paktika province on September 7, the SOF unit ordered all occupants to leave
the compound and detained "several suspected insurgents" after "initial
United States forces in Afghanistan have never released figures on what
proportion of Afghans detained as suspected insurgents were eventually released
because of lack of evidence. Major General Douglas Stone, who reviewed US
detainee policies in early 2009, was reported by The Guardian on October 14,
2009, to have concluded that two-thirds of the detainees still being held by
the US military as Taliban insurgents were innocent.
The claim of 365 "insurgent leaders" killed or captured is also highly
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
organizational diagram for the Taliban, the official told IPS, and Taliban
fighters are not organized 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 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