This installment of AfPak Behind the Lines looks at Afghan President Hamid Karzai's calls to end night raids in Afghanistan with Thomas Ruttig.
1) This past weekend, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called for an end to Special Operations "night raids" in Afghanistan, as well as a drawdown of combat forces from Afghanistan's countryside, roads, and daily life. This public dispute over a key element of ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus' strategy has made a considerable splash in the American press, but how has it been viewed and reported in Afghanistan? Do Afghans consider it an important move, or simply another in a growing line of public disagreements between Karzai and American officials?
The discussion about night raids, "culturally insensitive behavior" and civilian casualties - the Los Angeles Times, referring to "internal U.S. military statistics," just reported about another increase of those by U.S. forces - has two sides, as often in Afghanistan. On one hand, many Afghans are concerned and - when personally affected - often extremely angry about such cases, more so because they are often repeated. What you often hear then is: "Why do they always come afterwards and apologize? Can't they have proper intelligence in the first place?"
On the other hand I hear many Afghans (including Pashtuns) say that they welcome night raids since they are not Taliban supporters but are intimidated by the militants. What they want, however, is for these raids are to be carried out with extreme accuracy - to avoid that anyone is harmed who is unrelated to the raid's target. This of course is difficult to do. I also get the impression from talking to people from different provinces that there are sometimes periods where these raids are carried out effectively and after a while they become less effective. This might have to do with the lack of sufficient forces that can do this.
2) Is there a sense that Karzai's call to end night raids is realistic, or has it been seen as more of a political statement? And if likeliness that the raids will not end, do you think there will be any change in Afghan opinion towards Karzai, especially in southern Afghanistan?
Karzai uses such arguments in a populist manner to strengthen his position as a "patriotic Afghan." He needs to, since, also in the eyes of many Afghans, his credibility has suffered from last year's fraud-ridden election. I want to quote my colleague and friend Andrew Wilder from the United States Institute of Peace because I fully agree and can't put it better: "Karzai is quite skillful at using these confrontations over tactical issues, which end up consuming large amounts of time and energy of top international policymakers ... to distract attention from more important strategic issues that he does not want the international community dealing with." If Karzai really follows up on this, it might influence opinion in an anti-Western way. But this is not really what Karzai could wish for: He should know that he needs external resources and external security support for some years still. On the other hand, I believe that continuing the current military approach does not lead to progress, i.e. peace, which is most important to most Afghans.
3) Do you see Karzai's comments as part of his broader public overtures to the Taliban, especially his calls for American troops to conduct fewer operations in the Afghan countryside?
I would not go so far, although Karzai has just reiterated his calls to the insurgents in his message for the current Eid festival, and an end to night raids, or a significant decrease, will of course make life easier for the Taliban. In general, it would be more helpful if Karzai and his allies pursued - not just in words and some symbolic gestures, like the High Peace Council (HPC) - a genuine political settlement, while including all social and political groups and not just the armed groups. That, however, would really need some re-thinking, not least in Washington. But maybe, the time is right for such a re-think with the upcoming Afghanistan policy review and NATO's Civilian Representative in Kabul Mark Sedwill's remark that we need to think beyond 2014 (and July 2011) in terms of international policy towards the country. Afghanistan's problems are too complex for such short timelines. But more time also does not help as long as international forces pursue business as usual.
Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. He speaks Pashtu and Dari.
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