U.S. Only Lightening Grip on Reins of Afghan Night Raids

In light of the Afghan War’s protracted wind-down, questions have arisen about who has the responsibility to carry out certain operations, particularly the controversial night raids. Since the war’s inception, the United States has taken pains to emphasize Afghan sovereignty even as it violates this sovereignty. With a timeline in place for withdrawal, U.S. policy has been to encourage the Afghan government to take on more leadership.

A recent memorandum — signed by Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, and Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghan minister of defense — points to the impending transition of responsibility to “Afghan-led operations.” According to American Forces Press Services,

The agreement “codifies what has been happening for some time — that is Afghan-led operations,” George Little, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and Pentagon Press Secretary said. The night raids have been an effective tool for U.S. and Afghan special operations forces, he added, and the vast majority of the raids are planned and led by Afghans. Afghans are responsible for entering private residences.

The most important component of Sunday’s memorandum is the agreement that transfers leadership of night raids to Afghan security forces. Afghan forces are currently responsible for leading 40% percent of the raids, which primarily occur in the southern Pashtun regions. Historically, raids conducted by U.S. forces have been a major point of contention in U.S.-Afghan relations. Emma Graham- Harrison at the Guardian writes,

The night raids, often in insurgent-dominated territory, have generated huge resentment among Afghans, both because of civilian deaths in operations that have gone wrong and through more general anger over intrusions into homes and on families…. Although the deal may constrain them, it allows raids to continue and will also mean responsibility for any civilian deaths or allegations of mistreatment will be shared by an Afghan partner.

The new deal stipulates the U.S. and Afghan forces get special permission from an inter-ministry council called the Afghan Operational Coordination Group, which will be responsible for approving all Afghan-led raids. U.S. forces may still be called upon to assist in raids. New York Times journalist Alissa Rubin spoke with a U.S. official who “emphasized that the relationship between Afghan and American troops was ‘not an adversarial one,’ and United States officials did not appear to be worried that Americans would be denied access to detainees.”

Exceptions made for special programs and the continuation of U.S. support for night raids emphasize the U.S. commitment to continuing influence in Afghanistan. The deal allows for some special forces not under the auspices of the Afghan government, like the CIA- trained units, to continue to conduct night raids without the permission of the government-led council. Capt. Kirby informed reporters that, “It’s not about the U.S. ceding responsibilities to Afghanistan.” Under these conditions the United States would still be consulted before any decision about operations had been made. Kirby refused to answer as to whether the new rules would be applied to independent special U.S. operations like JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command). Similarly, journalist Spencer Ackerman reports that restrictions may only apply to cases where there is a “reasonable chance of taking Afghan prisoners” or what Kirby describes as “search[ing] a residential house or compound.” These restrictions serve to further limit Afghan control over raids.

Similarly loopholes in the Afghan constitution, specifically under Articles 38, allow for warrantless detention. Kirby said that “theoretically, these operations can still go forward without a warrant in advance. But it does have to be pursued as soon as practical afterward.”

U.S. financial support for night raids, moreover, confirms ongoing US involvement in promoting raids. “The Americans are not giving up a huge amount,” one Western official told The New York Times. “And if they are paying $4.1 billion a year for the Afghan military, if they want permission to question someone, I think they’ll get it.”

In the end, then, the memorandum’s ambiguity regarding when and where the United States can conduct raids without approval from the Afghan government seems to undermine the shift in paradigm being called for by Washington.

Melissa Moskowitz is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.