KABUL, Afghanistan -- The U.S. Special Operations commander who directed the operation that killed Osama bin Laden defended the unpopular night raids on homes in Afghanistan that have provoked the fury of the country's president and held up a security agreement with the United States.
Adm. William McRaven also backed a training program his troops run for village police forces – an initiative that some fear could spawn militias and new violence.
McRaven, who leads the U.S. Special Operations Command, said in a rare interview with journalists late Saturday that the U.S. understands Afghan concerns about night raids and has allowed its partner Afghan forces to take the lead in those and other operations.
"At the end of the end of the day I think you would find that night raids are very valuable when you are trying to get someone who is trying to hide," McRaven said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called for an end to the raids, in which troops borne in by helicopter search homes, because he says the forces conducting them treat too many civilians as if they were insurgents and violate privacy in an intensely conservative society. The deaths they cause – although relatively few in number – have made them unpopular with many Afghans.
Afghan citizens, Karzai says, cannot feel secure if they think armed troops might burst into their homes in the middle of the night.
McRaven, who would not answer questions about the May raid that killed bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan, said the United States was discussing the future of night raids with Afghanistan's government.
Around 2,800 raids against insurgent targets have been carried out in the past year, he said. But in 85 percent of them, the forces involved never fired a shot.
"In that time the civilians casualties were less than 1 percent. The number of times we engaged was about 15 percent," he said.
Karzai convened a traditional national assembly known as a Loya Jirga last month that stopped short of demanding a complete end to night raids. Instead, it asked that they be led and controlled by Afghan security forces – a demand that the U.S. says it has met.
Still, the issue has held up the signing of a security agreement with the U.S. that could keep thousands of American troops here for years beyond the 2014 deadline for most international forces to leave. Remaining U.S. troops would train Afghan forces and assist with counterterrorism operations.
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, told reporters Saturday the raids will be a topic of debate when the two countries return to the negotiating table to discuss their strategic partnership.
McRaven's command is involved in training Afghan commandos – 8,200 so far – as well as special forces and local police known as ALPs.
U.S. special forces have been training the village-level fighting forces in hopes of countering the Taliban insurgency – a concept similar to the one that turned the tide of the Iraq war.
But the ALP initiative has stirred worries it will legitimize existing private militias or create new ones. Warlord-led militias ravaged Afghanistan in the 1990s, opening the way for the Taliban takeover.
McRaven said he had not seen any evidence that the groups were fueling local rivalries. He said there was no decision to increase the number of ALP's, although "my instinct is yes to increase, but that remains to be seen."
The Afghan government has agreed to have about 30,000 of the ALP forces trained by the end of 2013. They will be located across 99 districts around the country at a cost of about $170 million a year. The forces are not meant to replace the Afghan army or police, but complement them in some areas.
"The real advantage for the ALP ... is the ability for Afghans from their local districts to protect their own homes," McRaven said.