Night Raids, Prisons, Politics and the Afghanistan Strategy

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 1 month ago

From The Christian Science Monitor:

Over the past year, US and NATO forces say they have made considerable progress against the Afghan insurgency through the use of night raids. But a new study suggests that the long-controversial nighttime operations are doing more harm than good.

Despite a sharp rise in the number of night raids, there have been no benefits in the form of decreased insurgent attacks, and anger over the operations has continued to mount among Afghan civilians, found the report by the Open Society Foundations and The Liaison Office, a research and analysis group in Kabul.

“The dramatic increase in the number of night raids, and evidence that night raids or other operations may be more broadly targeting civilians to gather information and intelligence, appear to have overwhelmed Afghan tolerance of the practice,” wrote the authors of the report. “Afghan attitudes toward night raids are as hostile as ever, if not more so.”

International forces rely heavily on night raids to capture or kill high-level insurgents. Night raids are a critical component of NATO’s strategy here, but a growing number of Afghans, including President Hamid Karzai, have condemned the raids as disrespectful to Afghan culture, and say they undermine the authority of the government and security forces …

Even in the face of heated political debate about the night raids, there was fivefold increase between February 2009 and December 2010. Though newer statistics are unavailable, military officials indicated to Open Society Foundations that international forces still conduct a large number of night raids, possibly at higher rates than those previously documented. By one estimate, up to 40 night raids occur daily throughout Afghanistan.

“The night raids are perceived by the people, by the government, by Afghans as an insult. It’s a very big insult because they are insulting our privacy … so people hate them from the depths of their hearts,” says Rahim Khurram, deputy director of The Liaison Office …

The US and international forces have made a number of changes to their night-raid policy that have, by many measures, improved their accuracy and addressed Afghan concerns. Among other changes, Afghan officials are now incorporated in the planning process, and 25 percent of night operations are led by Afghan forces.

Presently, International Security Assistance Force officials say that they get their target 80 percent of the time during night raids. The report does not state what portion of the remaining 20 percent escaped or if they mistakenly arrested the wrong person. ISAF officials also point out that the night raids account for less than 1 percent of civilian casualties and that 85 percent are conducted without any shots fired.

“Night operations are an effective method of maintaining the pressure on the enemy while minimizing risk to innocent civilians,” says US Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, an ISAF spokesman.

Many of the improvements have been overlooked or gone unnoticed by Afghans, however, due to the sheer quantity.

Despite pervasive disapproval of night raids among many Afghans, if conducted properly, they are a valuable tool against the insurgency, says Mirwais Yasini, a member of parliament from Nangarhar Province, where night raids have been a serious point of contention.

“We cannot do without them, because if we do away with the night raids it means we are cutting [ISAF’s] operational capacity to the day, and if we do that it means we’re cutting their operational capacity to less than 50 percent,” says Mr. Yasini.

He suggests that instead of raiding houses during the night, international forces should try surrounding a village at night and make arrests during the day time.

Analysis & Commentary

Of course many of the Afghan people don’t like it.  But the edifice upon which this whole objection is built is population-centric counterinsurgency, with its adage that “if you kill one insurgent you create ten more.”  There isn’t a single shred of evidence that killing an insurgent creates ten more – that’s just a doctrinal mantra, and if repeated enough times it begins to be taken as science.  However, while the objection lodged by the Afghans to high value target raids may not be salient, there is a much more important reason that these raids are not as successful as they are purported to be.  Prisons.  Many or most of the HVTs are not killed, but captured and sent to prisons.  These prisons have become not only a laughingstock of the Afghan culture, they have become dangerous.

Cell Block 3 was in flames as prison riots continued in the next block over. The Taliban had grown too powerful, and the confinements of Afghanistan’s Pol-e-charki prison became little more than protective walls rendering them untouchable from the war raging outside.

The December 2008 riots at Pol-e-charki prison on the outskirts of Kabul served as a wake-up call to the severity of the corruption that had crept in through padded pockets and turning blind eyes. Captured Taliban commanders and radicalized prisoners had formed an operating center within Cell Block 3—armed with weapons, and with their own Shura Council to hold trials, vote, and eliminate those who refused to cooperate.

“The guards were not even allowed to go down into the cell block because they would be killed or kidnapped—I mean, its the Wild West out there,” said Drew Berquist, a former U.S. intelligence agent and author of “The Maverick Experiment,” in a phone interview.

Attention fell on the prison after the riots, and rebuilding efforts became focused on increasing security. This included eliminating cells for large groups, and replacing them with cells for smaller groups of between two and eight.

“You had a prison that was run by the Afghan government, but really, entire facilities within that prison were being used as training and education grounds for insurgent elements,” said Drew Quinn, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs director at the U.S. Embassy Kabul, on the NATO Channel in Nov. 2009.

Resolving such issues is no simple matter, and the battle behind prison walls continues to this day.

A rare news conference in Kabul, held by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security intelligence service in February, highlighted the breadth of the problem—noting that despite efforts to root out operations at Pul-e-Charkhi, it is still going strong.

Taliban commander Talib Jan, a prisoner at Pul-e-Charkhi, is one of the more extreme cases. He organizes suicide bombings across Kabul from within his cell—including the Jan. 28 suicide bombing of a supermarket that killed 14 people.

“Most of the terrorist and suicide attacks in Kabul were planned from inside this prison by this man,” said National Directorate of Security spokesman, Lutfullah Mashal, at the conference, New York Times reported.

The problem, according to Berquist, runs deep.

“The prison systems are corrupt,” Berquist said. “The safest place for the Taliban is the prisons because they can’t get caught again.”

But if killing an insurgent doesn’t in fact create ten more, imprisonment of one may in fact do just that.  To coin a phrase, “imprisonment one insurgent creates ten more.”  Remember that phrase.  Since HVT raids focus so much on imprisonment of insurgents, they are counterproductive.  Killing the enemy isn’t counterproductive, but because we place so much value in not doing that in the campaign, it has affected the entirety of the effort.

And this clouds the whole strategy.  Thus, Presidential candidate Rick Perry is not clear yet in his proposed strategy for Afghansitan.

Rick Perry is still laboring to articulate a clear position on Afghanistan. At Monday night’s Republican debate, Perry–who has no real foreign policy experience beyond flying Air Force cargo planes abroad–seemed to endorse Jon Huntsman’s call for a major drawdown from Afghanistan. Yesterday, an unnamed Perry adviser revised and extended the gentleman’s remarks for Foreign Policy:

“If increasingly the Afghans can do this kind of work, then of course we want to bring our people home. It’s good for us, it’s good for them. But Gov. Perry is not confident in the Obama policy, which seems to be driven largely by politics, and he’s not confident in the 100,000 troops number. He’d like to know if it’s possible at 40,000,” the advisor said, explaining that the rationale for the specific number of U.S. troops on the ground has never been clearly explained by the administration.”He would lean toward wanting to bring our troops home, but he understands that we have vital strategic interests in Afghanistan and that a precipitous withdrawal is not what he’s recommending.”

This position is incredibly tortured. A presence of 100,000 troops seems too high to Perry, but he opposes Obama’s plan for a modest withdrawal of about 30,000 troops because it’s apparently driven by “politics.” He’s against a precipitous withdrawal, yet he’s interested in a 60 percent reduction in forces–to a level that would make David Petraeus bang his forehead on his desk.

Perry isn’t the only Republican to send mixed signals on Afghanistan. That’s because the GOP candidates are torn between two powerful forces. One is the general public’s loss of patience with the Afghanistan war. Especially now that Osama bin Laden is shark food, a clear majority of Americans want us out–regardless of whether Afghan troops can execute jumping jacks. But Republican voters are still on board: As of June, 53% of them still favored fighting on until Afghanistan has been stabilized (whatever that means).

Even Andrew McCarthy, writing for NRO, observes that Perry’s answer was muddled (although McCarthy parrots the usual stuff about killing and capturing a lot of people which makes his case rather odd).  Since we have tried population-centric counterinsurgency and nation-building in the most backwards place on earth, the last ten years has seen a groundhog day rinse and repeat of the same thing, over and over again.  Of course our strategy is confused.  The people who implemented it were confused.

Mr. Obama has been content to go along with a confused strategy and cut his losses as soon as possible.  In challenging him, the GOP needs to see their way clear to a revised strategy and a justification for said approach.  This needs to fit within the framework of the larger war against the transnational insurgency, in which AQ, the Taliban, the TTP, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc., are just manifestations of the militant side of Islamism, with the Muslim Brotherhood being the manifestation of the more political side of (what will ultimately become the forcible implementation of) sharia law.

Whatever is decided, let’s be clear.  A small footprint, HVT raid-based approach by 10,000 – 15,000 troopers, mostly SOF, won’t work.  When there are no troops to provide security for the people who supply intelligence for the raids, the raids will dry up.  When logistics cannot get supplies to the troopers, it will take SOF missions to rescue the SOF troopers remaining in Afghanistan.  A small footprint is a silly, juvenile cop out, and a poor excuse for actually thinking through the difficult issues of the war.

The troops exist for the proper execution of the campaign.  The CJCS could tell the Commandant of the Marines to stop playing Iwo Jima, give up the ridiculous EFV, settle for a mission that includes air-based forcible entry capabilities, and send Marines all over the world in distributed operations (similar to SOF).  There are missions for the Marines to do, surely.

And as for what to do with the insurgents, they must be killed or released.  Prisons are not only not helpful in counterinsurgency, they are counterproductive.  As I have said before, prisons … do … not … work … in … counterinsurgency.

UPDATE: From The Washington Post:

Even as U.S.-led forces draw down in Afghanistan, U.S. officials expect the number of detainees at their main prison to increase — and by a significant margin.

Officials had already announced that they would retain control of the Parwan Detention Center north of Kabul well beyond the planned 2012 transfer date because of concerns that the Afghan legal system is still too weak. But U.S. officials recently said they intend to solicit contractors to help expand the facility’s capacity from about 3,500 beds to 5,500 beds.

Parwan, which has been expanded previously, holds about 2,500 detainees. Those detainees include high-profile insurgents as well as Afghans who are suspected of playing more of a peripheral role in the conflict.

The construction project “is part of our established and ongoing transition efforts” with the Afghan government, Capt. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the U.S. task force that oversees detention operations in Afghanistan, said in an e-mail. Aandahl said the expansion was necessary to “accommodate an increase in the number of suspected insurgents being detained as a result of intelligence-based counter- terrorism operations, which we conduct with our Afghan partners.

There is a massive amount of hope in this plan.  It is being planned in order to “accommodate an increase in the number of suspected insurgents being detained as a result of intelligence-based counter- terrorism operations …”  All of which means that the U.S. wants to turn this even more into a SOF High Value Target campaign.  In other words, take that which hasn’t succeeded thus far, and intensify it without the troopers on the ground to supply logistics and security for those who supply intelligence.  This exemplifies the bankruptcy of our military thinking on Afghanistan.

Prior:

The Long Term Effects of Prisons in Counterinsurgency

The Great Escape – in Afghanistan!

Because Prisons Work So Well In Counterinsurgency

Afghan Prison An Insurgent Breeding Ground

Prisons Do Not Work In Counterinsurgency

Hamid Karzai: Defeater of the High Value Target Program

The Ineffectiveness of Prisons in Counterinsurgency

Jirgas and Release of Taliban Prisoners

Prisons in Afghanistan

Prisons in Counterinsurgency



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  • TS Alfabet

    Ah, Herschel, you are hitting a very sensitive spot with this post.

    It is, perhaps, the Achilles Heel of America.

    How often in American history has anyone come along who has articulated a clear strategy to inform and sustain a sensible foreign policy? Very rarely. America’s history in the world has largely been reactive. We sit and wait and stay aloof until we are attacked directly and then we react.

    It is incredible that 10 years after 9-11 the U.S. is still unable to come to grips with the Islamic threat we face— we are too politically correct to admit that militant Islam is the problem as you point out.

    But even if we could admit the real problem, we are still lost in a sea of confusion about what, if anything, to do.

    W. Bush tried to articulate a vision of democracy for the Middle East but the actions never followed from the rhetoric. Often times the actions were in contradiction to his freedom agenda (i.e., Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia… the list goes on).

    We seem to be a nation with enormous resources that are continually misallocated, wasted, or hidden away because we have lost any clear idea of who we are in the world and what we can accomplish. Part of that is the bitter divide in this country between Left and Right. We are waking up to the fact that we have been fighting a Cold Civil War since at least 1932, with the Left determined to take the country in a radically different direction into Big Government Control. To that end the Left bombards the rest of us from the Entertainment and Media industries, the Educational system, the Legal system and the Political system (whenever they can get their hands on the White House and Congress).

    Until the Left is defeated in this country, and defeated decisively enough that they can no longer hold sway over popular opinion, we will be a giant, lumbering, oaf in the world, lucky to avoid a major cataclysm here at home. Afghanistan and Iraq and the rest of the world will spin out of our control because we simply lack the unity of purpose and conviction of will to do what is necessary for victory. Expect to see ever more ridiculous schemes that try to plaster over the humiliating failure that is Afghanistan. Snatching defeat from the jaws of… oh, heck, we can’t even say the word.

  • anan

    TS Alfabet, Love all Serve all. The Truth will set us free. [Love platitudes that sound nice.]

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Featured,Marine Corps,Prisons in Counterinsurgency and was published September 19th, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

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