Gen. Petraeus’s Review of Tactics Must Focus on Night Raids and Civilian Protection

July 9th, 2010 - by admin

Erica Gaston / Huffington Post – 2010-07-09 20:18:12


(June 29, 2010) — With General Stanley McChrystal’s ouster, his successor General David Petraeus has suggested that he will review specific tactical restraints, even though the overall strategy and direction of the Afghanistan war will remain the same.

As he begins his review, the tactics General Petraeus should consider revising are not those tactics that General McChrystal put in place to protect civilians but those that continue to show indifference to their harm and outrage.

In 2009, General McChrystal instituted changes to military tactics that resulted in greater overall civilian protection and fewer civilian casualties. These changes have been controversial. General McChrystal argued that building community support in the long term was more important to the overall effort and to overall troop safety than the short term gain of shooting at an insurgent and causing civilian harm, which would lead to more insurgent support.

Troops have rightfully been concerned that what is lost in the trade off is their immediate short term safety. But in most cases, it’s not clear that loosening the restrictions that General McChrystal put in place would help their immediate safety.

The number one threat to troops today is IEDs, followed by suicide attacks. Rarely would the restrictions on airstrikes and hasty fire prevent troops from defending against these types of threats. The majority of the time, by the time troops find out about the threat, the insurgent who was responsible is either long gone or already dead.

Instead, General McChrystal knew that you stop these threats through good intelligence and trust among the community. You can’t get that by killing or terrorizing innocent civilians in the community.

As General Petraeus takes over command in Afghanistan, he needs to revamp the overall practice of night raids. While many of the tactics that General McChrystal instituted have had an impact on civilian protection, the one exception is the extremely inflammatory practice of night raids.

Today in Kabul, more than 300 citizens protested against another night raid conducted by international military forces. Shouting slogans of hatred for international forces, the protests soon turned violent as those in the crowd threw stones at Afghan security officials trying to restrain them.

Today’s protests are not an exception: night raids have long been one of the biggest complaints of Afghan civilians. More than 98 civilians were killed in night raids in 2009 (and many times that number detained or harmed) in these night-time house searches. These search and seizure operations are often accompanied by heavy use of force. In a night raid a few months ago, an elderly man was shot in his bed by US forces. Further, beyond actual harm, the raids are extremely offensive to Afghan culture.

The Afghan home, and the women of the family in it, are considered sacrosanct. Breaking into houses at night and invading this privacy is one of the most culturally abusive things troops could do in Afghanistan. It only takes one night raid to undermine years of tactical restraint and goodwill-building measures. One Afghan from Khost pointed out to me, “If someone is handcuffed in front of women, he would see no other way left, but to head towards the mountains [to fight with the insurgents].”

Recognizing how much night raids clashed with the “hearts and minds” premise of counterinsurgency, General McChrystal put in place new tactical restrictions in January designed to set the bar higher for authorizing these raids, restricting certain conduct, and increasing accountability.

But it’s not clear that these have had much impact. The number of night raids went up — not down — under his command, according to officials I’ve spoken to. And a raid in February that killed three women under suspicious circumstances was only investigated after journalists and human rights monitors raised the issue publicly.

No one yet knows how the change in leadership of the Afghanistan mission will impact the lives of civilian and soldiers on the ground. The strategy General McChrystal instituted in Afghanistan was modeled after General Petraeus’s strategy in Iraq and General Petraeus will likely keep in place many of the restrictions reducing civilian harm. But it’s less clear what he will do about night raids.

As head of central command, he retained control over many of the night raids operations over the past year. Some sources suggest that the increase in night raid operations has been more due to these operations than those coming under General McChrystal’s authority.

The change in leadership is an opportunity to revamp past tactics or choices that weren’t working. But if so, it needs to be done for all practices, from troop restraints to black ops to troop positioning. When it comes to counterinsurgency strategy, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Applying a counterinsurgency lens to some aspects (like air strikes or direct fire) but not to other aspects (like night raids or overall accountability) is self-defeating. Otherwise the protests and the outrage we saw today will keep coming, and so will new insurgent recruits. And that doesn’t make anyone safer — not civilians, nor troops.

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