Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Strangers at the door: Afghanistan’s deadly night raids
NATO has admitted that its forces were responsible for the deaths of five Afghan civilians including three women during a botched night-time raid in eastern Afghanistan in February. Two of the women were pregnant, one a mother of 10, the other had six children.
The alliance initially said troops had found the women already killed, bound and gagged, when they entered the compound in Gardez in Paktia province, but later acknowledged that was untrue. NATO is now looking at allegations by Afghan investigators that U.S. Special Forces involved in the raid tampered with evidence at the scene to cover the blunder.
It was another of Afghanistan’s deadly night raids gone wrong, which have so alienated Afghans, and where the risk of killing civilians is perhaps greater than with air strikes. The New York-based Open Society Institute in a report released in February said while casualties linked to air strikes had fallen as part of the new counter-insurgency strategy to protect the population, there has been no noticeable decrease in the dreaded practice of night raids. Indeed night raids are taking place in previously unaffected areas such as Kunduz in the north where a resurgent Taliban have mounted a strong challenge to German forces based there.
Night raids are when military forces, usually a mixed group of internationals and Afghans, force entry into an Afghan home in the middle of the night, search the premises and usually detain one or more men of the family. Reports of abuse — punching, slapping, or other mistreatment — during these raids are frequent, says Erica Gaston, a human rights lawyer and one of the report’s authors.
In some cases, people said they witnessed detainees being gun butted or kicked, sometimes while handcuffed. Former detainees and other witnesses to night raids reported international forces breaking dishes, destroying furniture, and setting vehicles on fire. Because many compounds house dozens of people, this property destruction was widely viewed as unnecessary and drew complaints from non-targeted residents in the house and their communities, the Open Society report says.
According to the UN, at least 98 civilians were killed in these incidents in 2009. In terms of creating enemies, you couldn’t do it better than attacking people in their homes at night, Gaston says. “It’s hard to do worse than breaking into some one’s house at night, taking actions that are viewed as violating the women of the household, and hauling family members to unknown detention sites for weeks to months.”
While attacking homes at night, rather than daytime, may add an element of surprise and reduce the risk to pro-government forces, it dramatically increases the chances of indiscriminate use of force against innocent women, children, and men in the house.
Something similar seems to have happened in the latest botched raid in Gardez. Here’s a London Times account of the raid and the allegations of cover-up first written by the newspaper. Here’s the New York Times story.
The conclusion, broadly is, that you tend to lose more than you gain from these raids, the Open Society report says. Just because Afghan forces are involved in the raid or even sometimes leading the operation, it does not absolve the foreign forces. In the eyes of the Afghans whose homes have been violated, it is the foreign forces who are ultimately responsible, the report said. Secondly, often, these raids are based on flawed intelligence as it happened in Gardez when coalition forces went in believing an insurgent was hiding there. As it turned out, there wasn’t any hostile activity going on; just a large family celebrating the Western equivalent of a baby shower.
It’s the sort of thing that becomes branded onto people’s memories, leaving an irremovable scar. What is happening in Afghanistan cam be compared to the people’s narrative in the Himalayan region of Kashmir. Kashmiris still talk of Indian army crackdowns on villages when males above the age of 15 were taken away in raids often conducted just before dawn. They are still trying to win hearts and minds there, more than 20 years into the conflict.