Can We Win Hearts and Minds While Night Raids Continue?


In case you haven’t seen it yet, Anand Gopal, who has reported from Afghanistan for the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor, has just written a disturbing and important piece for Tom Dispatch on night raids and “black” prison sites in Afghanistan.
The piece also appears on The Nation‘s site.
The use of night raids by ISAF and non-ISAF American forces are among the most controversial aspects of the war effort in Afghanistan, because they sometimes result in the deaths or imprisonment of innocent Afghans.
And while NATO has recently put in place new rules for night raids that are intended to prevent accidental deaths and cause less anger among Afghans, the raids will likely continue. As Gopal points out, many of the raids are carried out by American Special Operations Forces, who operate outside of NATO command and often with little oversight.
And even as we have already shut down secret prisons around the world and move toward closing Guantanamo Bay, detainees in Afghanistan lack the rights to challenge their imprisonment and stories of secret prisons where abuses occur continue to surface.
Gopal notes that while the detention situation has improved and become more transparent since President Obama took office, allegations of mistreatment and disappearances to secret prisons continue. But more than the immediate anger and confusion caused by night raids and abuses, Gopal notes the long-term effects of these abrasive counterterrorism tactics:

If night raids and detentions are an unavoidable part of modern counterinsurgency warfare, then so is the resentment they breed. “We were all happy when the Americans first came. We thought they would bring peace and stability,” says former detainee Rehmatullah. “But now most people in my village want them to leave.” A year after Rehmatullah was released, his nephew was taken. Two months later, some other villagers were grabbed.
It has become a predictable pattern: Taliban forces ambush American convoys as they pass through the village, and then retreat into the thick fruit orchards that cover the area. The Americans then return at night to pick up suspects. In the last two years, 16 people have been taken and 10 killed in night raids in this single village of about 300, according to villagers. In the same period, they say, the insurgents killed one local and did not take anyone hostage.
The people of this village therefore have begun to fear the night raids more than the Taliban. There are now nights when Rehmatullah’s children hear the distant thrum of a helicopter and rush into his room. He consoles them, but admits he needs solace himself. “I know I should be too old for it,” he says, “but this war has made me afraid of the dark.”

Even as we improve our counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, practices continue that could permanently hamper our ability to gain the popular support needed to push back the Taliban. And even if these practices were stopped tomorrow, I fear that the memory of past mistakes and horrors will not fade from the minds of the people whose support we so desperately need.
— Andrew Lebovich


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