By Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - At an army compound on Kabul's ramshackle fringe, a few of Afghanistan's most elite soldiers are running assault drills in a race to remove one of the most serious irritants in Afghan-NATO relations.
Sergeant Ghulam Mohammad shouts orders to his men -- soon to be joined for the first time by women special forces -- on how to conduct night raids, which more than any other NATO counter-insurgency tactic have angered mercurial President Hamid Karzai.
"Be ready to attack! You attack the enemy and don't give them a chance to raise their heads to fight you," Mohammad says as soldiers charge and automatic gunfire rattles over a weapons range blanketed in snow.
Foreign troops say night raids and home searches -- usually carried out by special forces -- are one of their most effective weapons in the fight against insurgents, but they are a major cause of friction between Karzai and his Western backers.
The raids enrage entire communities and fuel anti-American sentiment and are politically calamitous for Karzai and his government. Joint Afghan-U.S. raids began in 2009 to try to dampen public opposition.
But Karzai last year told a meeting of leaders from across the country that unless night raids by NATO forces ended, he would not conclude a strategic agreement covering the presence of U.S. soldiers in the country beyond 2014.
In a compromise, Afghan defense officials decided in late December to form special forces -- benignly named the Afghan Partnering Unit (APU) -- to take over raids on private homes as soon as possible, with members selected from commando units.
"Our capabilities and the quality of our equipment have increased to the point that we are now able to take responsibility for night raids in the country." General Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Defence Ministry, told Reuters.
And in a bid to make the raids less provocative, Azimi said commanders were also trying to recruit female commandos to enter homes and search areas often reserved for women.
"In the future, when an Afghan-led force takes responsibility for night raids, there must be women." Azimi said.
Colonel Jalaluddin Yaftali, head of Afghan special forces, said he was waiting for approval to begin training women to fill what he described as a major gap in a force that would eventually number about 3,000.
Afghan control of night raids would help lower civilian casualties, as well as ease anger among Afghans about cultural transgressions during operations, Yaftali said.
But Azimi said the APU, while well-equipped compared to other Afghan units with American M4 rifles and night vision gear essential to night operations, still lacked some capabilities, most importantly better helicopters used by NATO forces.
"The helicopters they use in the night raids are kind of special. They don't produce lots of noise. The United States could assist us by giving such helicopters," Azimi said.
Afghanistan's special forces over the past three years have been carrying out operations independent of their western mentors in four of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, mainly in the east.
Last week, in Balkh province, in the town of Chawk-e-Kamgar, Afghan APU soldiers killed Mullah Rabani, the deputy Taliban commander for north Afghanistan.
Yaftali said over the past four months Afghan-only night raids had been carried out in Khost, Paktia and Logar provinces, as well as Wardak, to the west of Kabul.
Jimmie Cummings, spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, said the Afghans were showing their increased capabilities by executing these type of operations on their own.
"They are doing more and more of these each day. Coalition forces have made great strides in training and partnering with Afghan forces so that they can assume responsibility for all types of tactical operations," he said.
(Editing by Rob Taylor and Robert Birsel)