Back to Night Raids: Counterinsurgency or Counterbureaucracy?
The cell phone rang in my corner of my tactical operations center. “Where are you?” the Afghan elder asked urgently. A commander from the al Qaeda-aligned Haqqani network was drinking tea one compound away, he said. The Haqqani commander was notorious for forcibly recruiting young Afghan villagers to fight for him and for executing anyone who stood in his way.
“He is suspicious of me and knows my sons have worked as interpreters for Western NGOs,” the proud old man pleaded. “He knows my family supports the government. The police are too afraid to challenge him. He will kill me. You said that America was here to protect us.”
This past weekend, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani authorized Afghan Army Special Forces to resume night operations targeting Taliban leaders. This action reversed a total ban that had been put in place by former President Hamid Karzai in 2013. According to reporting in the New York Times, U.S. forces can provide helicopter and air support, and U.S. Special Operations forces may accompany Afghan forces, but not lead the operations into Afghan homes.
Lifting this ban is a step in the right direction, towards allowing the Afghan Army to go on the offensive against the resurging Taliban, as is President Barack Obama’s recent decision to expand U.S. troops’ role in Afghanistan. These steps are not enough, however. We must undo the excessive bureaucracy that has hobbled our ability to conduct effective night raids.
Night raids were controversial, but necessary. Far from the popular media narrative that the raids often did more harm than good, the opposite was true. The raids protected the populace. They removed Taliban and Haqqani commanders from the fight and reduced the prospect for civilian and American casualties. As one Afghan school teacher, whose brother had been beaten by the Taliban for teaching girls, told me, “Please remove this cancer from our valley. Until you come here and kill him, his men will terrorize everyone who is educated,” referring to Jalaluddin Haqqani, the leader of the terrorist group.
Night raids allowed us to maintain an element of surprise, descending in helicopters before Taliban commanders had a chance to ambush our forces. Without the night raids, our troops were forced to maneuver on Taliban-controlled areas during the day, giving up the advantage of our night vision equipment, allowing the enemy time to prepare, and exposing the local populace to the danger of stray bullets as they went about their daily lives.
The elder had called my Special Forces headquarters in eastern Afghanistan hours before to inform us the Haqqani commander and a gang of his fighters were rounding up men in his village. Since his call, I had spent hours fighting through the layers of military bureaucracy required to conduct a night raid. My staff had begun calling our effort in Afghanistan a “counterbureaucracy” campaign rather than “counterinsurgency” as we spent hour upon hour begging for resources like helicopters and Predator drones along with the myriad of approvals needed to release them to conduct a night raid.
It was repeated complaints from Karzai that led to the dismantling of our night raid operations in Afghanistan. Karzai believed that the raids “insulted” the average Afghan. In 2005, for instance, I was present in the Pentagon as a civilian policy advisor when Karzai visited Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and complained directly about these raids. In response, then-commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry ordered that all night raids be approved at his level. This had the effect of curtailing both the number of night raids and also unit flexibility for conducting them because units had to submit a mission request a week in advance to allow it to get staffed for approval up the chain of command.
Again in 2008, I was present when Karzai complained to President George W. Bush during a video conference. That time, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered a full review of our civilian casualties policy.
By 2009, despite a tremendous increase in the number of missions and a worsening insurgency, Eikenberry’s rule had not changed. The result was a systematic and self-inflicted retardation of the most capable military in the world. It felt as though we were defeating ourselves rather than the Taliban defeating us.
By 5 a.m., the approvals still had not come. The Afghan commandos gave up on us and went back to their barracks. The helicopters powered down. The sun began to peek over the mountains to the east. My intelligence sergeant told me the Haqqani commander had moved to another town after morning prayers. The elder would no longer answer our calls. We were not sure if he was still alive.
We received word through the grapevine that the villagers had lost faith in us. The elder survived, but he never spoke to us again. We heard later that he had sold some of his family’s land to a Haqqani-aligned individual at bargain prices. He did so partly to placate the Haqqanis and partly to make up for the income his sons had lost when they quit their jobs as interpreters with the coalition. He wouldn’t let them work with us any longer. “The Americans won’t protect you. We cannot depend on them,” he had reportedly told his sons and a group of their friends who worked on a nearby Afghan Army base. The cost of our inaction was substantial.
The reversal of the ban on night raids by President Ghani makes this valuable tool available once more. But for night raids to be truly effective, our military leaders should take additional steps to reduce bureaucratic hurdles hampering our special operators.
After all, the more time that Taliban insurgents have to worry about where they are going to sleep at night, the less time they have to plan attacks on Afghan forces and harass the Afghan people.
This article includes excerpts from Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret’s Battles from Washington to Afghanistan by Michael G. Waltz.
Michael G. Waltz is a lieutenant colonel in the Special Forces (reserve component), president of Metis Solutions, and senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation. Formerly, he was commander of a Special Forces company, counterterrorism advisor to the vice president, and director for Afghanistan policy, Office of the Secretary of Defense-Policy.
Photo credit: The U.S. Army