US night raids 'aimed at Afghan civilians'
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - United States Special Operations Forces (SOF) have been
increasingly aiming their night-time raids, which have been the primary cause
of Afghan anger at the US military presence, at civilian non-combatants in
order to exploit their possible intelligence value, according to a new study
published by the Open Society Foundation and The Liaison Office.
The study provides new evidence of the degree to which the criteria used for
targeting of individuals in night raids and for seizing them during raids have
been loosened to include people who have not been identified as insurgents.
Based on interviews with current and former US military officials with
knowledge of the strategic thinking behind the raids, as well
as Afghans who have been caught up in the raids, the authors of the study write
that large numbers of civilians are being detained for brief periods of time
merely to find out what they know about local insurgents - a practice the
authors suggest may violate the Geneva Conventions on warfare.
A military officer who had approved night raids told one of the authors that
targeting individuals believed to know one of the insurgents is a key factor in
planning the raids. "If you can't get the guy you want," said the officer, "you
get the guy who knows him."
Even when people who are known to be civilians have not been targeted in a
given raid, they have been detained when found on the compound of the target,
on the ground that a person's involvement in the insurgency "is not always
clear until questioned", according to military officer who has been involved in
operational questions surrounding the raids interviewed for the report.
Raids prompted by the desire for intelligence can result in the deaths of
civilians. The Afghan Analysts Network, a group of independent researchers
based in Kabul, investigated a series of night raids in Nangarhar province in
October-November 2010, and found the raids were all targeting people who had
met with a local religious cleric who was believed to be the Taliban shadow
Two civilians were killed in those raids when family members came to the
defense of their relatives.
The report notes that many Afghans interviewed said night-time operations had
targeted a number of compounds simultaneously, in some cases covering entire
In a village in Qui Tapa district of Kunduz province, SOF units, accompanied by
Afghan army troops, conducted a raid that detained 80 to 100 people, according
to the report. The interviewees said a masked informant pointed out those
people to be taken a US base to be interrogated.
The idea of using military operations to round up civilians to exploit their
presumed knowledge of the insurgency has a long history in the US-North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) war in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon official in charge of detainee affairs until the end of 2005 told
Inter Press Service (IPS) that concerns about "over-broad detention" in
Afghanistan - meaning the practice of sweeping up large numbers of civilians -
were countered by pressures for "more aggressive detention operations".
As then head of NATO intelligence in Afghanistan, Canadian Brigadier General
Jim Ferron, explained in a newspaper interview in May 2007, "The detainees are
detained for a reason. They have information we need."
It is not clear that civilians actually provide important intelligence on
insurgents, however. The civilian victims of night raids are family and friends
of Taliban fighters and commanders, who have no incentive to provide
information that would make it easier for SOF units to track them down.
According to the new report, another factor inclines the SOF commanders in
Afghanistan to focus more on people for whom the evidence of involvement in the
insurgency is weak or non-existent. After taking heavy losses, in 2010, Taliban
commanders at district level and above are increasingly residing in Pakistan
rather than in towns in Afghanistan where they can be more easily targeted.
Without those targets on their lists, SOF units in Afghanistan may have had to
choose between going after more civilians or reducing the number of operations.
And the growth in the number of operations and the statistics on alleged
insurgents killed or captured are a key measure of the relevance of SOF units.
An average of 19 raids per night were conducted during the period from December
2010 through February 2011, according to data published by Reuters last
February. But a senior US military adviser interviewed for the report in April
2011 said that as many as 40 raids were taking place in a single night.
A military officer involved in the night raids told an author of the study that
there were no longer enough mid- to high-level commanders still active in
Pakistan to justify the present high rate of raids, and many raids were now
likely to be targeting people who are known not to be insurgents but who might
know something about specific insurgents.
Other officers interviewed for the report denied that contention, however,
claiming there were still plenty of commanders left to target.
The report suggests that it is dangerous to detain family members in particular
in order to exploit their knowledge of relatives in the insurgency, because it
further inflames an already angry population across the country.
"If that is the criteria, they might as well arrest all southerners," said one
Afghan journalist living in Kandahar. "The person who is an active Taliban is
either my uncle, cousin [or] nephew."
Based on interviews with residents in villages where raids have taken place in
the past several months, the report concludes that communities "see raids as
deliberately targeting and harassing civilians, in order to discourage
communities from providing food and shelter to insurgents, or to pressure them
to supply intelligence on the insurgency".
Most of those civilians targeted or swept up in night raids are released within
a few days, according to the report. That assessment is consistent with the
revelation, reported by IPS in September 2010, that roughly 90% of the
individuals who were said by the International Security Assistance Force in
August 2010 to have been "captured insurgents" were in fact released either
within two weeks of initial detention or within a few months after being sent
to Parwan detention facility.
The authors of the report conclude that deliberately targeting and rounding up
civilians who are not suspected of being insurgents merely to exploit possible
intelligence value "may constitute an arbitrary deprivation of liberty" and
thus "inhumane treatment" in violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.
The report suggests there is "anecdotal" evidence that the targeting for the
raids has become more accurate.
But that anecdotal evidence appears to be contradicted by other evidence that
the targeting has become more indiscriminate in deliberately targeting
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 in 2006.