December 16, 2011: A major complaint of Afghan drug gang and Taliban leaders is that they have a hard time getting a good night's sleep. That is largely because, on any given night, American Special Forces and commandos from other nations are raiding homes looking for the sleepy bad guys. So far this year it has come out to an average of eight such raids a night, although at times it will peak at up to 30-40 in one night.
The Taliban and gangsters complain to the tribal leaders they have on the payroll, who in turn complain to Afghan president Hamid Karzai. As a result Karzai is constantly demanding that NATO (and especially the U.S.) halt the practice of staging these night raids. Karzai has been making this demand for years but never carries through on the threats to kick the foreign troops out if the raids don't stop. That's because Karzai's own counter-terrorism experts explain to him that eliminating the night raids would be a major victory for the terrorists and make it easier for them to plan and carry out assassination attacks on government leaders, including Karzai. This stops Karzai from doing anything really foolish and makes the tribal leaders look like they are earning the bribes they receive to complain. Karzai is also trying to protect members of his family. Many of them are getting rich from corruption and the drug trade. Making threats against NATO improves Karzai's popularity with many Afghans (although most see him as corrupt and ignore him) and sometimes the threats take NATO pressure off corrupt members of the Karzai clan.
NATO will not stop conducting night raids, as these are the best way to catch Taliban at their most vulnerable and take them alive (as well as capturing useful documents). A minority of the raided households turn out to be innocent of any crime. In this kind of war that is to be expected. NATO has constantly developed new techniques for the raids that minimize casualties and hitting houses that do not contain criminals. For example, Afghan soldiers are now taken along and first try to talk their way in explaining in the local language why the troops are there. These days most of the raiding force consists of Afghan troops. In fifteen percent of the raids there is gunfire from those inside the house, at which point the raiders quickly suppress the violence. Despite that, only one percent of the casualties on these raids are civilians.
A key factor in defeating the Taliban and drug gangs in Afghanistan is the use of raids and rapid use of any information obtained. For thousands of years it was more common to obtain information, carry it back to someone who would analyze it, and then present it to someone else to act on it. That has changed and the change was developed in Iraq. It was there that combat troops tended to spend much, if not most, of their time raiding locations where terrorists were believed to be based or just staying temporarily. This technique was transferred to Afghanistan where in 85 percent of the raids there are no shots fired. On average, about two people are killed on raids where shots are fired.
Karzai insists that these raids too often target innocents and insult all Afghans by violating the sanctity of the household. What Karzai does not want to discuss is the fact that the majority of the raids result in arrests of terrorists or the capture of incriminating evidence. Often, those incriminated are related to Karzai or members of his family. Corruption is widespread in Afghanistan and Karzai continues to insist that this is not so.
The targets for raids were often obtained from documents taken or interrogations conducted during previous raids. But it became the custom to seek “actionable intelligence” while conducting a raid, especially the names and locations of other suspects. This was made possible by sending intelligence analysts on raids, along with the widespread use of PCs, laptops, PDAs, and smart phones for storing databases that could be quickly used to see if what was found in one raid was connected to any other persons of interest. Increasingly, this was frequently the case. Often, going on a raid involved compiling beforehand a list of people which those being raided were known to work with. If you found who you were looking for you already had questions to ask and knew what answers would be lies. This approach, once it was widely used, proved devastating to the enemy.
The raids were mostly at night and one raid might yield information that would promptly lead to several more before the sun came up. By hitting targets at night the raiders more often had the element of surprise and caught the targets before documents could be destroyed. The enemy tried to adapt (with more lookouts and data rigged to be quickly destroyed) but the raids were grabbing too many of the competent men and leaders out of action. In Iraq this caused the terror organizations to shrink dramatically and between 2007 and 2009 terrorist attacks dropped by over 90 percent. In Afghanistan there was a similar impact with Taliban attacks down 25 percent this year.
In Afghanistan raiding tactics ran into another problem. The Taliban and drug gangs tried to use their control of the media to get the raids halted (because they offended the Afghan sense of propriety). This caught on in the Western media but intel officials always had the real story to show their political bosses. While there were always a few raids that hit the wrong target most took out someone who was a terrorist killer or producer of drugs. It was the raids that produced the best evidence on who was most corrupt in the Afghan government and military. The raids were too important to mess with. So American politicians publicly apologized and privately revealed what had been obtained about dirty dealing in Afghanistan.