Sunday marked an important milestone in ending the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. With little fanfare the U.S. and Afghanistan signed a vital compact, which will add Afghan oversight to much-hated U.S. night raids. Few U.S. military practices smack more of U.S. colonialism in Afghanistan than America’s heavy use of extrajudicial night raids. Under the MOU, Afghan forces will take the lead role in most night raids, which will now require an Afghan court warrant within 72 hours of a raid. But warrants can be issued after a raid if the case could be made that the intelligence needed to be acted on immediately. This is an important step toward not only the 2014 U.S. withdrawal date but also signals the beginning of the period where NATO forces can actually win over hearts and minds.
While everyone agrees that the raids have had a serious negative effect on the average Afghan’s perception of NATO and the government in Kabul, there are varying accounts of the frequency of these raids or the raids’ accompanying death toll. Last month, Gen. John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, spoke highly about the raids, “This last year we had about 2,200 night operations. Of those 2,200 or so night operations, in 90% of them we didn't fire a shot.” Allen continued, “But after 9,200 night operations, 27 — 27 — people were killed or wounded in night operations. That would argue for the power of night operations preserving life and reducing civilian casualties.” The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the U.S.-NATO command, however, found that U.S. Special Operations Forces had killed over 1,500 civilians in night raids in less than 10 months in 2010 and early 2011.
Before discussing how this deal will fundamentally alter the America’s role in Afghanistan, I must first mention the deal’s caveats. Afghan forces can still call on American troops for support in these night raids of Afghan homes. The agreement only covers night raids carried out by special operations forces. While this accounts for the vast majority of the raids, it does not include those conducted by special C.I.A.-trained units. While Americans will no longer have the right to question detainees, NATO forces can be called on for assistance in this area. But given that NATO countries pay for nearly all the costs of the Afghan security forces, it seems unlikely that NATO forces will be blocked from questioning detainees it feels are especially important. Even with all of these caveats, however, the Afghan War is entering a new stage.
As I said earlier few U.S. practices were better examples of colonial exploitation of Afghanistan. The dramatic photos of Westerns storming Afghan homes and dragging out men and boys enraged a nation. This practice also broke with social and religious norms concerning the privacy of women in their homes. There is simply not enough food aid or development grants in the world to make up for these violations of Afghan sovereignty. With the end of the vast majority of U.S. directed raids, NATO forces are finally in a place where they can win over Afghan hearts and minds.