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Afghan policy reversal reinstates special forces night raids

by Scott Hickie

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In November, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani overturned the ban on special forces night raids instituted by former President Hamid Karzai in 2013.

The policy reversal came on the heels of the recently concluded US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), US President Barack Obama’s recent force authorisation, and the NATO status of forces agreement. Collectively these agreements will result in a continued US and NATO presence in Afghanistan until 2017. These agreements also elevate the Afghan National Army Special Forces (ANA-SF) as operation leaders and relegate foreign special operations forces (SOF) to operational, advisory or ‘combat enabling’ support roles.

US SOF operators are currently training approximately 200 ANA-SF in Kandahar and will provide air transport and support, night vision equipment and intelligence to those troops for night raid operations. While there is no clear data on the levels of civilian casualties during night raids compared to day time attacks, a former spokesperson for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was cited by The Diplomat as stating that 85% of night raids were completed without the firing of live ammunition.

Assessment

Increasing Taliban movement and mobilisation during the cover of night is one driver influencing the policy reversal. Night raids significantly increase the tactical advantage of special forces and reinforce technical and equipment superiority. With continuing force drawdowns, it would appear that the Afghan National Army and remaining coalition forces are seeking to maximise any available tactical advantage. However, complex chain of command authorisations will limit the speed with which night operations can be planned and executed. The long-term tactical effectiveness of ANA-SF over the Taliban will also be dependent on continued access to advanced air transport and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment currently provided by the United States.

There is acute awareness of Afghan public opposition to night raids and the danger that the policy reversal may expose Ghani to some future political attacks despite the Afghan parliament supporting the signing of the BSA. The US administration has rebranded the practice as ‘night operations’ rather than ‘night raids’ in a bid to manage public perceptions. The fact that Ghani and the White House are willing to stir up negative public sentiment during a politically fragile period may give some indication of the seriousness with which the Afghan and US governments are taking the threat posed by a resurgence in Taliban activity. The delayed withdrawal of up to 1,000 US troops announced by US defence secretary Chuck Hagel on 6 December reinforces this assessment. The rise of the Islamic State and the limited effectiveness of conventional Iraqi Army forces after the US withdrawal from Iraq are also likely to be also influencing US foreign policy in relation to Afghanistan and the desire to avoid leaving a security vacuum for the Taliban.

This assessment is taken from our remote-control warfare briefing for December 2014.