US night raids killed 1,500 Afghan civilians
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - United States Special Operations Forces (SOF) killed well over
1,500 civilians in night raids in less than 10 months in 2010 and early 2011,
analysis of official statistics on the raids released by the US-North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) command reveals.
That number would make US night raids by far the largest cause of civilian
casualties in the war in Afghanistan. The report by the United Nations
Assistance Mission in Afghanistan on civilian casualties in 2010 had said the
use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by insurgents was the leading cause
of civilian deaths, with 904.
Except for a relatively few women and children killed by accident, the
civilians who died in the raids were all adult males who were
counted as insurgents in press releases and official data released by the
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
The data on night raids, which were given to selected news media, cover three
distinct 90-day night raid campaigns from May through July 2010, early August
to early November, and mid-November to mid-February. The combined totals for
the three periods indicate that a minimum of 2,599 rank and file insurgents
were killed and an additional 723 "leaders" killed or captured in raids. [See
Assuming conservatively that one-third of the alleged leaders were killed, the
total number of alleged insurgents killed in the raids was 2,844.
SOF night raids during the 10-month period totaled 6,282, according to the same
A third crucial statistic, repeated frequently by US and NATO officials in 2010
and 2011, is that shots were fired by SOF units in only 20% of night raids.
A US military source who has been briefed on SOF operation confirmed to Inter
Press Service (IPS) what has been generally known among outside observers -
that anytime shots are fired by SOF troops in a night raid, someone is killed.
If shots were fired in 20% of the 6,282 raids, it means that 2,844 were killed
in 1,256 raids.
With very rare exceptions, night raids target only individuals rather than
groups. They are carried out at night because they are aimed at catching the
individual at home asleep and therefore taken completely by surprise.
Therefore, a minimum of 1,588 people (2,844 total killed minus the 1,256
targets in the lethal raids) were killed in the raids even though they weren't
Not every one of the untargeted individuals killed in night raids was a
non-combatant civilian. But the socio-cultural and physical setting of the
raids guarantees that the percentage of civilians in that total is extremely
Within the Afghan compounds that are the physical targets of US night raids
live extended family households that normally include not only the male head of
family and his wife, but his brothers, sons and cousins and their families.
In Afghanistan, every adult Pashtun male has a weapon in his home, and is
obliged by the ancient code of conduct called "Pashtunwali" to defend his home,
his family and his friends against armed intruders. In a typical extended
family compound, several males have weapons.
As a result, the non-targeted civilians killed in night raids have invariably
been either close relatives or neighbors who come out to assist against an
SOF commanders and the command and staff of the ISAF have essentially denied
all civilian deaths in night raids, except for women and children, by counting
all adult males killed in raids as insurgents.
That ISAF policy has been confirmed to IPS by a US military source briefed on
the operational aspects of the raids.
ISAF has counted adult dead in raids as insurgents even when the victims held
prominent positions in the Afghan government, as was the case in the Gardez
night raid of February 12, 2010.
In that raid, two men who were shot dead in the targeted compound by a SOF unit
when they came out of their dwellings with Kalashnikov rifles turned out to
have been a district prosecutor and a local police chief. Nevertheless, ISAF
reported in its press release on the raid that two insurgents had been killed.
The killing of family members and neighbors who responded to night raids with
weapons was already a major issue within the US mission to Afghanistan as early
as 2008, according to Matthew Hoh, who was the senior US civilian official in
Zabul province in 2009.
"Pashtunwali was causing serious problems for us in the context of night
raids," Hoh told IPS. "It was raised as a key issue in our training even before
I went to Afghanistan."
The problem had become so prevalent by early 2010 that General Stanley A
McChrystal referred to it explicitly in his early 2010 directive on night
raids, parts of which were released to the public by ISAF March 5, 2010.
McChrystal noted that the Afghan adult male had been "conditioned to respond
aggressively in defense of his home and his guests whenever he perceives his
home or honor threatened. In a similar situation most of us would do the same."
McChrystal expressed regret that these "[i]nstinctive responses by an Afghan
man to defend his home and family are sometimes interpreted as insurgent acts,
with tragic results."
Although a large proportion of those targeted in the estimated 1,256 lethal
raids were undoubtedly Taliban insurgents, a very substantial proportion were
Some were targeted after malicious tips by tribal and personal enemies. Others
fell victim to a targeting system that is overwhelmingly dependent on
electronic intelligence. Phone calls to a known insurgent are regarded as a
basis for adding a cell phone number to the "kill/capture list".
One detainee picked up in a night raid earlier this year was told by his
interrogator that it was because he had made phone calls to an insurgent, IPS
learned from a friend of the detainee's family.
Hoh, who was briefed on the list, called the Joint Priority Effects List (JPEL)
in 2009, told this writer that a large proportion of the targets on the list
were not identifiable individuals at all, but mobile phone numbers.
But in the Pashtun zones of Afghanistan, contacts with Taliban commanders and
other Taliban figures are nearly universal, according to Michael Semple, former
deputy European Union representative in Afghanistan and a leading specialist on
the Afghan insurgency.
In addition, SOF commanders have begun consciously targeting individuals who
were not believed to be insurgents but who were believed to have provided moral
or material support, or to have intelligence information about them.
That targeting shift, acknowledged by military officials to the authors of a
recent study by the Open Society Foundations and The Liaison Office, was
reflected in an 82% increase in the number of people seized in raids and
detained briefly during the August- November campaign, compared with the
Those detainees were also counted as insurgents in the data released to the
news media, despite the fact that up to 90% of them were released as civilians
within days or months, as IPS reported last June.
Some of those targeted civilians were killed in raids when they appeared to
challenge the SOF intruders, adding to the 1,588 non- targeted individuals
killed in the raids. However, estimating the additional toll of civilians is
The ISAF Public Affairs Officer for SOF issues and officials responsible for
civilian casualties monitoring at the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan did
not respond to requests for comment on this article.
Afghan human-rights officials and foreign observers have suggested that fewer
civilian deaths have occurred in night raids with the increasing use of the
so-called "soft knock", in which Afghan personnel are used to announce the
presence of the raiding party with a loudspeaker before entry into the house.
The toll of civilians in more recent 90-day periods may well have been reduced
in 2011 compared with a year earlier, as suggested by smaller numbers of
alleged insurgents said to have been killed over the course of the three
But night raids clearly remain the overwhelmingly primary - though still
unacknowledged - cause of civilian deaths in the war.
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.