Yesterday, the leader of international military forces in Afghanistan announced changes to the way his forces conduct war. Days after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke about the need to reduce Afghan resentment and ill-will towards the U.S. military, General McChrystal made public a new tactical directive ordering that "night raids must be tactically sound, judiciously used, and as transparent as possible."
This is a smart move. It heeds the concerns of Afghans and closely tracks the findings of a recent report, which I co-authored, released by the Open Society Institute (OSI) and The Liaison Office (TLO), an Afghan nongovernmental organization.
As I wrote in my post last week: "While it may be necessary for forces to conduct night raids in certain scenarios, military planners need to do a better job at preventing the mistakes that too often accompany the raids." These mistakes include abusive behavior, destruction of property, the disrespect of cultural norms, and lack of accountability.
Because compounds frequently house dozens of people, most of whom are not the targets of the raids, residents complain that the destruction of property is often needless and avoidable.
As a result, night raids have been counterproductive to some of the top goals the international community has set out to achieve in Afghanistan, namely increasing stability, garnering greater local trust and support, and strengthening the rule of law in Afghanistan.
As the OSI-TLO report mentions, night raids are even overshadowing the military's pro-civilian successes, such as the reduction of airstrikes that kill innocent men, women, and children.
The new order addresses some of these issues. Soldiers are to use night raids only as a last resort and when they provide an advantage over day-time operations. The directive also indicates that forces who conduct raids should be accountable and not rely on secrecy and deniability. This is in direct response to Afghan complaints about the lack of answers, especially from operations run by Special Operations Forces, about the destruction of their property or the detainment of a relative.
US marines, from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, patrol in the town of Garmser in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Photograph: Rafiq Maqbool/AP
McChrystal goes as far as to instruct: "If possible, local elders should be incorporated into the process to ensure that the actual facts are related to the local populace." In other words, soldiers should now understand that their actions will need to be explained, and justified, to the Afghan people.
The increased importance McChrystal places on accountability is also revealed by the directive's requirements for soldiers to take record of any seized or damaged property and to provide "detailed receipts with point-of-contact provided to local elders or other leaders within the compound, and in the case of any damage, instructions on how to claim compensation."
The new directive also, importantly, requires that females caught in night raids be searched only by females and emphasizes the importance of international forces to conduct operations in coordination with Afghan national security forces. "ANSF should be the first force seen and the first voices heard by the occupants of any compound entered," the directive reads. Both of these measures combat Afghan complaints of cultural insensitivities by international forces.
The directive does, however, fall short on a few critical issues:
- The directive minimizes the real problems that night raids cause for Afghans and, instead, focuses on the negative perceptions night raids create through "myths, distortions and propaganda." While it is true that minor incidents can snowball into hyperbole, the destruction of furniture, clothes, and vehicles, prolonged detention, and physical and verbal abuse are very real, justified complaints.
- Nothing in the directive instructs forces to improve how they verify their intelligence and gather evidence. My only hope is that this is in the classified version or in another classified directive. The fact that McChrystal expects his soldiers to take records of confiscated and damaged property does, however, help debunk the myth that night raids are chaotic and violent events that make it impossible for the military to gather detailed witness statements and evidence that could be used to strengthen judicial or administrative proceeding. The fact is that a raid, which often starts off crazed, will often become calm and controlled.
- The increased responsibilities that the directive gives to Afghan forces in night raids needs to be matched with an increased level of accountability for Afghan forces. Afghan security forces have a reputation for corruption and even torture. If international forces see such abuse, a procedure needs be in place that guarantees the guilty individuals will be held responsible and such behavior will not reoccur.
- The directive does not prohibit international forces from working with informal unregulated Afghan militias, often called campaign forces, that fall outside the control of the Afghan government. This is a recipe for disaster. These groups are difficult to monitor and have a reputation for abuse. As one former detainee told me, "The actions of these campaigns are defaming American soldiers."
In the coming weeks and months, as military operations continue to expand into some of the country's most violent areas, international forces and Afghan forces will be under the close scrutiny of local communities and human rights groups. The new directive is a positive step towards ensuring that civilians don't get caught in the middle of a war. But the true test will be measured by the implementation of the directive, the behavior of those forces not covered by its rules, and General McChrystal's continued willingness to make corrections as needed.