Night raids a touchy topic for Afghan-US relations
KABUL THE continuing use of night raids by US special forces on Taliban strongholds and the resultant civilian casualties are presenting a major challenge to relations between the United States and the government of President Hamid Karzai.
The two sides struck a deal on Friday that forsees the transfer of prisons, including the key US facility at Bagram airbase near Kabul, to Afghan authority within six months.
The two issues are seen by the Karzai government as crucial to future relations ahead of a complete handover of combat operations by the US and its NATO allies by the end of 2014.
Analysts and officials say Western involvement will depend primarily on the USAfghan strategic partnership, a framework currently being drawn on US military engagement and development aid.
Afghanistan has already signed pacts of this sort with Britain, Italy and France, but without the United States, the others will be reluctant to pledge long-term support.
Maulavi Khaliqdad, a senior cleric with the religious Afghan Ulema Council, says: “Night raids should be halted immediately.” “If the Americans go in arbitrarily and search houses without having a mandate from the courts, no one likes it... If it take place in the US, the Americans themselves will not accept it,” Khaliqdad said.
Masoom Stanekzai, an adviser to Karzai, said: “Night raids are very sensitive. We have to agree on the mechanism how the Afghan capacity will reach a point where they will be able to conduct these house search operation by Afghans.” After signing the prison transfer understanding on Friday, Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said the two countries would continue talks and “discuss and finalise a new document which is the Afghanisation” of night operations led by US special forces.
“By signing the special operations document and this memorandum, the conditions of the government of Afghanistan will be fulfiled to pave the way for signing the strategic partnership document with the US,” Rahim Wardak said.
The US embassy in Kabul said the prisons deal “basically moves us closer to reaching some sort of agreement on the strategic partnership which is in the interest of both the countries.” Spokesman Gavin Sundwall confirmed negotiations on a second memorandum of understanding on the night operations.
“While we would like to conclude a strategic partnership as soon as possible, there is no timetable for us. It is more important to get the strategic partnership right for both the countries than to get it quick,” Sundwall told dpa.
While Karzai has long asked the NATO-led coalition to stop all night operations, foreign military officials insist they are a cornerstone of operations against the Taliban insurgency.
“Afghanisation” of the night operations, in which Afghan commandos lead the operation while NATO forces provide support, is seen as a possible solution.
An Afghan official said some progress had been made and that “the two sides are working to find a balance on the issue of night raids.” “It’s highly likely that a middle path will be reached in which night raids will not be stopped, but they will be completely Afghanised,” an official said on condition of anonymity.
A Western diplomat in Kabul said Afghan commandos have already started taking the lead role in many of these operations. “So it will not be hard to Afghanise the whole operation very soon,” he said. An understanding could be based on a time limit to start the full handover.
Some Afghan leaders are critical of Karzai’s stance, saying ending the night raids will hamper military gains.
Former deputy interior minister Abdul Hadi Khalid said the only way to defeat the Taliban was by “intelligence and surprise attacks” since the Taliban “do not have an address or a sign.”