Afghan National Army commandos from 6th Special Operations Kandak (U.S. Army Photo by Pfc. James K. McCann / Released)

There are few confirmed details currently, but what is known suggests that forces led by the United States in Afghanistan mounted a night raid to hunt down militants in a residential area. When they were fired upon by insurgents, the forces decided to call in an airstrike to attack a compound. That led to the deaths of up to eight civilians.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai put out a statement that condemned the raid. “As a result of bombardment by American forces last night, which was conducted…one woman and seven children were martyred and one civilian injured,” it claimed.

It noted, “The Afghan government has been asking for a complete end to operations in Afghan villages for years, but American forces acting against all mutual agreements and guarantees have once again bombarded a residential area and killed civilians.”

International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) public affairs, the NATO-led group of forces engaged in operations with US troops, put out their official account of what happened. It indicated that commandos of the 6th Special Operations Kandak, an Afghan national army unit, along with ISAF special operations advisers, mounted the operation to go after “insurgent activities” in the Ghorband district of the Parwan province. This includes attacks on Bagram Airfield.

The district was described as a “high threat area with Taliban activity, some linked to the Haqqani network.” Also, “insurgents in this area enjoy freedom of movement allowing them to harass and threaten the local population as well as stage and facilitate attacks.”

Afghan commandos, with support of ISAF, were going after Qari Nazar Gul, “Taliban Deputy Shadow Governor for Parwan Province and a member of the senior Taliban Commission,” and Noorullah, “a mid-level Taliban Commander.” Yet, according to reports, it does not appear either was killed or captured.

What ISAF alleges happened:

ANSF commandos and their coalition advisers came under heavy fire from insurgents, resulting in the death of one ISAF service member. The force required defensive air support to suppress the enemy fire from two compounds. According to initial operational reports, at least 10 insurgents were killed. Tragically, two civilians inside a building from which insurgents were firing on the commandos were killed.

The force recovered insurgent ammunition and weapons, as well as several Afghan National Army uniforms during the operation.

ISAF may claim 10 insurgents were killed, but how do they define an insurgent? Were all ten of these people shooting at forces? Or were they caught up in the firefight?

“According to Karzai and the governor of Parwan province, the incident occurred about 1 a.m. Wednesday when U.S. Special Forces attempted to enter a home,” the Washington Post reported. So, was it really the ISAF or does Karzai just think it was US Special Forces?

Either way, the mission relied upon intelligence to kill or capture Gul or Noorullah. That makes this operation a night raid, even though coalition forces and the US will avoid using that term.

As the Open Society Foundations explained in a report in September 2011, “Night raids have been associated with the death, injury, and detention of civilians, and have sparked enormous backlash among Afghan communities. The Afghan government and the Afghan public have repeatedly called for an end to night raids.”
However:

International military officials argue that the increase in night raids has been their most successful strategy in the last year, although they have offered no evidence to support these claims. They argue that absent the ability to continue night raids, insurgent attacks would increase significantly.

But:

[T]hese touted gains have come at a high cost. The escalation in raids has taken the battlefield more directly into Afghan homes, sparking tremendous backlash among the Afghan population. The Afghan government calls the raids counter-productive to reconciliation efforts with insurgent groups, and a threat to Afghan sovereignty, given the limited Afghan control of night raids. Complaints over night raids have marred Afghan relations with international partners, particularly the United States, and have complicated long-term strategic partnership discussions.

The US now would like Karzai to sign a “security deal” that would allow it to keep a “residual force” of at least 8,000-15,000 troops and contractors.

One of the key problems (as was also the case in Iraq) is the US demands immunity for US troops and contractors that will remain in Afghanistan (though Karzai appears to be exploiting this issue to extract concessions from the US).

Night raids are also a major point of contention as the US has asked the security deal to include a provision that would allow American forces to enter Afghan homes in “exceptional circumstances,” whatever that means.

Gareth Porter reported in 2011 that US Special Operations Forces had killed over 1,500 civilians in night raids in “less than 10 months in 2010 and early 2011,” according to statistics from US-NATO command.

Porter offered this critical context:

Not every one of the untargeted individuals killed in night raids was a noncombatant civilian. But the socio-cultural and physical setting of the raids guarantees that the percentage of civilians in that total is extremely high.

Within the Afghan compounds that are the physical targets of U.S. 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.

If the Taliban targets were among a local population of civilians—and were known to “harass” them as ISAF indicated in the press release, what made any commanding officer think civilians would not be killed if they ordered an air strike on a compound?

The answer, of course, is the forces did not want to retreat. They preferred to destroy the compound with the insurgents inside rather than fall back.

This is exactly the kind of operation that outrages Afghans. It is why Karzai is under immense pressure to not sign a security deal.

And, if the US wishes to negotiate some kind of peace agreement with the Taliban—one that perhaps involves the release of an American prisoner of war, it cannot expect these kind of night time operations to be helpful in bringing about a deal.