Increased nighttime military raids by international military forces in Afghanistan have created a resentment that has undercut any battlefield gains from the tactic, according to a report released Monday by a U.S. think tank.
The New York-based Open Society Foundations, founded by liberal U.S. billionaire George Soros, said in its report that NATO and U.S. troops have made important improvements in the way they conduct night raids following complaints from the Afghan government that its citizens were being treated unfairly or rudely.
Civilian casualties are down in overall NATO operations, which have also become better targeted.
However, the report says even nighttime raids conducted with the best practices breed discontentment and mistrust among both ordinary Afghans _ who feel less secure knowing that armed men in uniform might burst into their homes at any time. The Afghan government has repeatedly called for a reduction in nighttime operations over which it has little control. The report said Kabul officials have warned that such raids undermine efforts to reconcile with those open to leaving the insurgency.
The findings are potentially troubling for coalition forces that are likely to depend even more on quick-strike operations like night raids as the U.S. and other troop-contributing nations draw down forces over the next few years.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has publicly denounced the nighttime raids in speeches and interviews, saying that the operations _ in which a small group of soldiers push into a compound and search the premises and the residents _ treat too many civilians as if they are insurgents and violate citizens' privacy in an intensely conservative society. Troops on night raids are also regularly accused of mistreating women or defiling copies of the Quran. Though the allegations often turn out to be specious, they damage NATO's reputation.
International troops conducted an average of 19 raids per night between December 2010 and February 2011, according to NATO figures cited in the report. More up-to-date figures were not available but the researchers interviewed a NATO official in April who said that as many as 40 raids might take place on any given night in Afghanistan. That represents a sharp increase over the past two years, the report says.
"The escalation in raids has taken the battlefield more directly into Afghan homes, sparking tremendous backlash among the Afghan population," the report argues, adding "Complaints over night raids have marred Afghan relations with international partners, particularly the United States, and have complicated long-term strategic partnership discussions."
NATO spokesmen in Kabul said that more than 90 percent of night operations are conducted alongside Afghan forces and that all are approved by Afghan officials.
Spokesman Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings believes that evening raids are a useful way to combat the Taliban insurgency.
"Night operations are an effective method of maintaining the pressure on the enemy while minimizing risk to innocent civilians," Cummings said. "Eighty-five percent of night operations are conducted without a shot being fired and account for less than 1 percent of civilian casualties."
Cummings said, however, that NATO forces are reviewing the report and are open to implementing any recommendations that will improve their operations in Afghanistan. He stopped short of saying if NATO was willing to sharply reduce the raids.
The author of the report, Erica Gaston, said an increase in the frequency of nighttime raids has come alongside an increase in insurgent attacks, meaning that Afghan citizens are not feeling any security benefits from the raids.
She said that her organization asked NATO officials what other methods they were trying to use instead of night raids, but that officials said they could not think of an example when a planned raid had been abandoned for another strategy.
According to Gaston, NATO rules of engagement say that troops should try to use alternative tactics instead of the raids.
"In practice, I think this is their go-to detention method. This is how they go out and get people," Gaston said.