Don't Be Afraid of the Dark: What the End of U.S. Night Raids Means for Afghanistan

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Baz Ratner / Reuters

U.S. troops before a joint mission with the Afghan army in the Maiwand district in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on April 7, 2012

Updated: April 11, 2012 at 1:15 a.m. EST

Night raid. The phrase bears with it images of both daring and terror — from a SEAL team taking down Osama bin Laden to a sinister midnight knock on the door in Soviet times. In Afghanistan, attitudes toward night raids are altogether less clear cut; they alienate the civilian population and worsen relations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. The collateral damage of coalition raids has also been a stumbling block toward an accord over the nature of the announced U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of 2014. Early Sunday evening that obstacle was removed with a stroke of the pen when General John Allen, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and General Abdul Rahim Wardak, the Afghan Defense Minister, signed an agreement that only Afghan forces can raid homes at night.

Now, along with the transfer of the Parwan Detention Facility on March 8 to Afghan control, two of the final barriers preventing an agreement over a post-2014 strategic partnership have been removed. This has left the White House, Pentagon and Afghan officials all heralding another milestone toward Afghan sovereignty, which will pave the way toward an eventual U.S. withdrawal. But according to some observers, this hasty American pullback may have far less rosy consequences. A closer look at the memorandum of understanding on night raids obtained by TIME shows that the U.S. gets nothing out of the agreement. What this could mean in the long run is that Karzai may have shot himself in the foot — since he may no longer be able to trade access to intelligence gathered through raids for foreign aid money. It also points to the White House's waning appetite to fight the war in Afghanistan.

The agreement signed Sunday says that only an all-Afghan body called the Afghan Operational Coordination Group can approve night raids and that these raids will be carried out only by the Afghan Special Operations Unit, which will be made up of Afghan army, police and intelligence personnel. Searches of houses must be done in accordance with Afghan law, and houses will only be searched by Afghan forces. Importantly, the document also says that U.S. forces can support "only as required or requested." Afghan judicial and investigative mechanisms will be established to issue "timely and operationally secure judicial authorizations." And, besides promising to help train and improve the Afghan raid squads, the U.S. will also be expected to cooperate in a full range of support roles from intelligence sharing to air support and transport. Finally, the agreement says that any Afghans detained outside of these Afghan raids are to be released or transferred to Afghan authorities.

All of this means that night raids are not going to end anytime soon — regardless of the outcry from Afghan civilians or rights groups, who have in the past complained of U.S. and NATO troops running roughshod over the lives and rights of innocent civilians during such nocturnal missions. Night raids "are very useful and remove the irreconcilable insurgents, allowing more time and space for moderates on all sides to find a middle ground," says a U.S. Army captain with experience in southern Afghanistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Besides taking radical, mid- and high-ranking Taliban off the battlefield, "night raids, and the threat of these raids, force Taliban leaders and support elements to take significant security precautions to avoid detection, which makes it more difficult to plan, coordinate and direct attacks and other subversive activities," says Joseph Felter, the commander of the NATO counterinsurgency advisory and assistance team from 2010 to '11 and current professor at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation. Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. political analyst and sometime adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command, agrees with the U.S. Army captain and Felter, but adds that "night [and day] raids are useful, but they are not a magic bullet."

For the most part, everyone TIME spoke to agreed that the Afghan Special Operations Unit is indeed ready to take over from U.S. Special Forces. "The Afghan Special Operations Unit that has partnered with U.S. Special Operations Forces has become better in conducting night raids — in planning operations, collecting intelligence and conducting tactical maneuvers," says Jones. "In addition, other Afghan forces — such as the Afghan Army Commandos and Afghan Army Special Forces — can also conduct direct action and other missions." Felter tells TIME that the U.S. Special Forces members he talked to in 2010-11 were "very impressed with the quality and readiness of these [commandos]." He adds that Afghan commandos lead "close to half" of night raids already. Altogether, 97% of night raids involve Afghan forces, 40% are led by Afghan troops, 89% occur without a shot fired and less than 1% result in civilian casualties, says Pentagon press secretary George Little.

But at the same time, problems are just around the corner. Says Felter: "Fielding forces capable of carrying out these complex missions requires significant investments in the training, leadership and human capital of these forces. If night raids are carried out by less well-trained and equipped Afghan national security forces, or the quality of the commandos is compromised, we can expect poorer performance. Also, even the commandos will need significant coalition intelligence and mobility support to execute these raids effectively."

When asked what problems could arise if the Afghan Special Operations Unit proves to not be up to the task, Felter says that "if these raids result in a significant amount of collateral damage and/or civilian casualties and fail to effectively interdict their intended targets, then Afghan forces will lose credibility and provide the Taliban with greater opportunity to discredit them in the eyes of the local population."

At the same time, Rand's Jones says he does not believe "the relationship between NATO and U.S. forces and Afghan civilians has ever hinged on one factor, including night raids." He adds that this "will not significantly change the relationship. The United States will continue to conduct night and day raids. The Afghan Special Operations Unit will take over the lead responsibility for conducting them. In reality, this will likely be more of a political than a military shift."

Indeed, says one Afghan rights activist who spoke on condition of anonymity, the whole outcry over night raids is "nothing more from President Karzai than a populist gesture to show the Afghan people that he's standing against the international forces — that he is not a puppet but a President."

But, in the end, a valuable trade mechanism may have been broken by Karzai's insistence on this deal. Currently, some 90% of the government's budget depends on foreign funding and about 97% of the country's GDP depends on foreign aid and international military spending. One foreign observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that now that the U.S.'s direct access to intelligence from detainees has been effectively cut off by these agreements, Washington will be less likely to continue funding the Afghan government. In effect, it seems to the observer that by getting nothing out of this agreement and losing so much control, the U.S. may be signaling that it has had enough and is giving up on the war. The observer says that a lack of new funds offered at the upcoming donor conference in Tokyo in July could be an indication not only of tough economic times, but also that the U.S. sees it cannot get anything useful out of its relationship with Afghanistan.

Even if such speculation proves true, the U.S. will continue to have a strong Special Forces footprint in Afghanistan — especially as high-profile jihadists remain at large. Felter believes the agreement on night raids "is an important gesture and precedent. We'll be turning over many, many more missions to Afghan security forces in the coming months and years. I think we will be impressed with the Afghan Army Commandos, and they'll perform well if we can maintain their current quality and level of intelligence and mobility support." But the U.S.'s cowboys aren't riding into the sunset. "That said, I anticipate that certain targets — should they present themselves — would warrant stacking the deck with the 'varsity team' [U.S. Special Forces] as long as they are available — should a guy like [Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad] Omar or [al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-]Zawahiri stray across the border." For some jobs, Washington will still stalk the dark.