NOW RUZI, Afghanistan — Early last Wednesday, the sun still hours from rising, a slender Afghan man stood trembling in a courtyard, staring at the soldiers around him. Beside the soldiers, he appeared small, insubstantial in his white shalwar kameez. A stream of blood gleamed on the bridge of his nose.
“It happened as I was trying to open my door,” he told them. “You guys were yelling for me to open it, and I was coming, but when I got there one of you kicked it. It hit me here.”
“I’m very sorry we had to come into your house this way,” Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Reinhardt said through an interpreter. “We don’t want to have to do it like this, but security in this area isn’t good.”
The man shrugged and wiped at the blood.
“Go wherever you want,” he said.
It was a hard scene from a hard mission, one of the most controversial and potentially explosive kinds that American soldiers have been given during 10 years of war.
Reinhardt’s raid was not one of the so-called kill/capture missions often used by Special Forces troops — and despised by Afghans. His was a “soft knock” operation, and began, at least, with a rap on the door. Afghan and U.S. soldiers started kicking when the man inside didn’t answer.
But in this small enclave of compounds west of Kandahar City, surrounded by deep, humid fields of corn and marijuana, that nuance probably meant little. Foreigners had come by helicopter, after midnight, and were demanding entry.
Reinhardt later said he would hate it if someone arrived at his home that way. Yet the tall, thin leader of 3rd Platoon, Destroyer Company, 2nd Battalion of the 87th Infantry Regiment, was forced to balance a tenet of counterinsurgency — respectful treatment of civilians — against the safety of his men in one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous regions.
“What else can we do?” he said.
In a decade of trial and costly error on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has not found an answer. So each night the helicopters descend and the soldiers pour out, sometimes knocking, sometimes kicking, the Afghans bolting from sleep — both sides wondering what they’ll find through the doorway.
A most effective method
U.S. forces have relied heavily on nighttime raids in recent wars. While they are often performed by special operations forces, regular troops like Reinhardt also conduct them. Military officials have called them one of the most effective and precise counterinsurgency tools available, capable of targeting insurgents and — because they’re done when most people are asleep in their homes — preventing civilian casualties.
Afghan leaders, particularly President Hamid Karzai, have recoiled from the raids. Karzai has repeatedly called for their cessation, and their continued use has strained relationships with his administration and imperiled agreements over how NATO forces will operate in the country in years ahead.
Still, their frequency is increasing.
On Oct. 10, a senior NATO official told Stars and Stripes that during the last 12 months approximately 2,900 raids had been carried out, an average of about eight raids per night. The figure is almost double the number of raids from the previous year.
Earlier this year, officials said that during a particularly intense period of raiding, between December 2010 and February 2011, about 19 raids were carried out each night. The tally from that 90-day period alone — some 1,700 raids — equaled the total number in the year before, from September 2009 to September 2010, according to figures provided to Stars and Stripes.
NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings wrote in an email that raids occurred throughout Afghanistan “wherever it is feasible.” They were a prominent feature of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s and Gen. David Petraeus’ turns as commanders of the NATO mission here. But while McChrystal apparently considered reducing their use, his successor boosted the operations — despite significant opposition from Karzai.
The current NATO commander, Gen. John Allen, appears comfortable with the higher tempo. In a video conference with reporters this summer, Allen said raids would “continue unabated.” Many officers see them continuing long after most coalition troops withdraw in 2014.
“Night operations are our most effective method of maintaining the pressure on the enemy while minimizing risk to innocent civilians,” Cummings said.
Buy now, pay later
Like any weapon or tactic, raids sometimes backfire.
In a policy paper released last month, researchers at the Open Society Institute warned that while night raids might achieve specific goals (the killing of a certain Taliban leader, for example), they risk undermining the greater objective of winning over the Afghan population because they are so intrusive, sometimes target the wrong houses and occasionally kill civilians.
Military officials have said civilians rarely die in night raids, and NATO spokesman Cummings said military statistics illustrated a record of success and care.
“Eighty-five percent of night operations are conducted without a shot being fired and account for less than 1 percent of civilian casualties,” he said.
But many analysts question NATO statistics, saying the records are sometimes vague, incomplete or even out of date. And, mistakes do happen. Often the blunders — wept over in villages and shouted down in mosques — resonate louder than the secretive successes of the raids.
This spring, an elderly cousin of Karzai’s was accidentally killed during a night raid south of Kandahar City. A day later, a 12-year-old girl was shot to death as she ran from the Afghan and NATO troops raiding her home near Jalalabad. The soldiers had stormed the wrong house.
In those cases, NATO accepted responsibility and apologized. But contrition in a foreign language has little power in a country where grief and rage are often communally shared. Only a few days after the girl’s death, hundreds of protesters gathered in Taloqan, in northern Afghanistan, following yet another night raid. Twelve protesters were killed in fighting with security forces.
Such incidents erode Afghan goodwill toward NATO — often in troubled regions considered crucial to its mission, warned Erica Gaston, a human rights lawyer with the Open Society Foundations and author of the policy paper.
Worse, they could push Afghans into the arms of insurgents.
Gaston, one of the few researchers to study the effects of night raids (she wrote a detailed report on them for the Open Society Foundations last year), described them in an email as a “buy now, pay later strategy,” and she said they “run the risk of sacrificing long-term goals for short-term gains.”
“One night raid in a village can be enough to turn them against international and Afghan government efforts,” she said. “They are a huge boon to insurgent propaganda and recruitment, helping them to replace fighters quicker than they can be killed.”
Afghan criticism of the raids has at times forced NATO to respond, including generals McChrystal and Petraeus. In spring 2010, McChrystal issued a new tactical directive to guide and constrain them.
Later, Petraeus ordered his own review and added more guidelines. The generals, top promoters of counterinsurgency strategy, seemed to realize the danger.
“… Ultimately, how the Afghan people judge our conduct and perceive our intentions will be decisive factors,” McChrystal wrote in his directive. “We must remember that their protection, their respect, and their support are the critical objectives for everything we do. And that reality must govern how we operate.”
Gaston praised the generals for their efforts, but added that while NATO’s own rules require commanders to search for alternatives to night raids, few seemed interested in doing so.
“It is these higher-level political and military officials who should be asking not just ‘what’s the easiest way to get this guy, on this night’ but what are the broader political and strategic costs of this practice overall,” she said. “That type of questioning isn’t happening.”
One approach to softening impacts has been to enlist the Afghan military. Coalition spokesman Cummings said that across Afghanistan night raids are now either partnered operations or composed entirely of Afghan soldiers. Putting “an Afghan face” in the lead can sometimes moderate the anger of civilians, who may more easily accept raids performed by their countrymen.
Some Afghans, however, call the practice a facade.
According to a leaked 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by Britain’s Guardian newspaper from WikiLeaks, Karzai himself told Petraeus that Afghan participation in raids would only leave Afghans shouldering the blame when they went wrong.
For NATO troops, there are other problems. Afghan forces have improved significantly in recent years, but many — if not most — still operate erratically, leaving soldiers wary when they team up for joint missions, especially high-risk nighttime ones.
Last week, a day before Reinhardt’s mission, only a few Afghan police and military officers attended a large planning session held beside a massive sandbox where key buildings, terrain and troop movements were simulated.
The sand table had been built for Afghans; they preferred its 3-D reality to the dullness of PowerPoint slides. But U.S. officers explained they hadn’t invited more Afghans because they didn’t trust them, particularly those in the lower ranks. Even the local Afghan police commander, a man the Americans rely upon, worried some of his men might tip off villagers, or insurgents.
Later, as Reinhardt’s unit and its Afghan army and police counterparts were driving to their staging area a few hours ahead of the mission, six Afghan police officers suddenly pulled out of the convoy.
“What’s going on?” an American soldier asked over the radio.
“They just quit,” another said.
Reinhardt laughed. Half a dozen fewer Afghans in the lead.
Far below the debate over how and when, Reinhardt knew responsibility would fall on him. During this peculiar era of warfare he was required to carry within him lethal aggression and polite cultural understanding. The struggles, lessons and failures of a decade were distilled into a young man’s ability to choose between them.
In other words, to turn on a dime.
Just after 1 a.m., two Chinooks touched down on the gravel bank of the Arghandab, a river running through some of the most contested terrain of the war. The helicopters faced west, so the soldiers within could funnel down their rear ramps and head east, toward the small village they had come to search.
But night landings are always confusing, another part of the danger. Eighty men and a tracking dog streamed from the helicopters, silhouettes sifting through the darkness, river cobbles clattering beneath their boots. Almost immediately five Afghan policemen who were supposed to travel with Reinhardt lost their way. Eventually they attached themselves to another element of 3rd Platoon who were headed to a different part of the village.
Not terrible, not ideal. Reinhardt’s group had shrunk again.
The men crept forward and crouched. Around them, in the distance, other American units were moving into blocking and clearing positions, ready to snare fleeing insurgents and clear IEDs from pathways. Reinhardt’s soldiers kneeled on stones as big as softballs while he and his commander, Capt. Jeffrey Auer, tried to figure out exactly where they were, where they were going.
The tracking dog whined, crickets clicked in the reeds. There was the warm scent of manure. Ahead, engineers set a charge to widen an opening in a mud wall and clear any IEDs that might cluster near it. The explosion echoed through the valley, and then the men were up and running.
There were thuds in the darkness as they began entering compounds. The soldiers kicked in a door; it smashed the Afghan man’s face. He stumbled out, bleeding from the nose.
Reinhardt puzzled over his maps. The compounds weren’t laid out as expected. And where were all the men of this village? The soldiers were forced to pause, orient themselves. Lose time.
“[Expletive] never goes as we plan,” Reinhardt said, stress in his voice.
From the sky, Apache attack helicopters fired illumination flares, falling yellow stars. Elsewhere along the river, other U.S. units detonated more clearing charges. Behind their doors villagers heard it all and waited.
Earlier, Reinhardt told his men their goal was to disrupt the enemy — to declare there was no safe haven in the region. U.S. forces have pushed the Taliban back in Kandahar since surge troops arrived more than a year ago, and the mission was intended to keep up momentum.
The men also hoped they might find evidence of a local insurgent leader named Yahya — maybe even catch him. He was a dangerous man, a bomber and a cop killer, a one-eyed mullah with a large scar across his face. A caricature of the enemy.
Within all this, Reinhardt understood the mission could be counterproductive. He would need to raid and talk, balance violence with positive spin and hope there wasn’t shooting.
“It’s a very taxing thing,” he said. “We’re essentially gonna wake these people up in the middle of the night, scare the [expletive] out of them, and then try to convince them that we’re the good guys.”
Reinhardt’s soldiers brought the man with the bloodied nose into the courtyard of an adjacent house and began questioning him alongside the house’s owner. The two men answered with low voices and familiar lines, learned and repeated by countless Afghans and Iraqis during years of conflict.
Neither of them knew any Taliban. Neither knew any IED traps. Neither knew where Yahya hid. And, it turned out, neither man liked the other. They were neighbors stuck in a feud, forced into each other’s company by the raid.
At the knees of the homeowner stood a tiny boy. He was shaking.
“Is he cold?” Reinhardt asked. Back home, in upstate New York, he had three children of his own.
“No, he’s scared,” the man, his father, said.
“Tell him and your family we’re not here to harm them.”
The man looked away.
The man with the bloody nose spoke up.
“We understand why you come at night. But there are no Taliban in this village. The danger comes from stray bullets.”
He told Reinhardt he believed the Taliban staged for attacks on U.S. troops nearby; sometimes their rounds, or the Americans’ — he never knew which — flew past, endangering farmers.
His willingness to talk was a good sign, Reinhardt said. In a way it put the soldiers at ease. The other man said little, rarely lifted his eyes. He appeared angry, waiting for the end.
A short while later his small son hopped through the courtyard, no longer shaking, like one of the dozens of pale toads that had emerged in the moist darkness. A foil package flashed in his hand. A soldier had given him a Pop-Tart.
A sergeant’s war
By dawn, Reinhardt’s men had nothing.
Together with another part of 3rd Platoon working in a separate part of the village, they’d searched almost a dozen compounds. With daylight, they would scour a large pomegranate orchard. A few Afghan policemen would light up a joint beneath branches heavy with fruit as red and round as Christmas ornaments, as if there were no danger at all.
Wherever there were children, the men trod carefully. Wherever there were women, the men left them inside, unseen. When it came time for morning prayers, Afghan policemen knelt beside a few villagers on a bare mud porch.
They collected no weapons, no evidence of the Taliban. No sign of Yahya, the insurgent whose name, sometimes pronounced “Ya-ya,” made the soldiers laugh. As for the main objective — disrupting the enemy — who could say? A few weeks’ time might tell whether they’d frightened insurgents away.
Reinhardt knew, on the surface of it, they had gained little. But he believed that if insurgents had been operating in the area, they would not return.
In a courtyard busy with chickens, cows, a goat and a growling dog, he spoke to a young man named Sultan Shah. It was Shah’s father’s house and, once more, Reinhardt relied on the soft side of his counterinsurgency training.
“We had reports that there were bad people here,” he told Shah. “I’m sorry that I had to come this way and scare the good people.”
Shah waved it away.
“I know it’s all for security,” he said. “The ANP came in first. They came calmly and with manners. It was all right. If you’d have come in another way, I’d be angry. But we were allowed to put the children away, and I’m not being hit, so what’s there to be mad about?”
After a night of confusion and explosions, of armed men sluicing through the shadows, it was perhaps the best possible answer. There had been no gunfire, the local men were mostly unbothered.
“You know, it’s just how it goes sometimes,” Reinhardt said. “The intelligence we get is human reporting. It’s not always great.”
He paused. “I think these people have just seen so much that they just take it in stride.”
When the sun rose over the fields, Reinhardt said he’d been thinking about the alternatives, answering his own question — what else can we do? He decided searching the village in daylight would have been much less intrusive and chaotic. In this case, a day raid would have produced the same results.
Reinhardt’s commander, Auer, said he already planned to visit to the village later in the week — during the day — “to smooth things over.”
Daytime operations are one solution that Gaston, of the Open Society Foundations, suggested to ease Afghan anger over raiding.
“The pace of night raids at its current levels is not sustainable,” she warned. “The Afghan public won’t tolerate it.”
Commanders seem to know that. McChrystal wrote in his directive that day operations should be preferred over night raids. Of course, there are risks in daylight, too, and for now trends show no general is willing to yield the night.
So out in the riverbank villages, in the mountains, the cities, men like Reinhardt will keep pushing into the darkness.
The sergeant was tired. The hollow fuel of Rip Its and chewing tobacco had run out. He and many of the men hadn’t slept for 24 hours or more. They still had to walk back to their small outpost.
He asked his medic, Cpl. Evan Jenkins, to bandage the nose of the man who’d been hit by the door. Jenkins swabbed it with antiseptic — “This could sting”— and then taped a white bandage over the wound.
Reinhardt apologized once more and shook the man’s hand.
Counterinsurgency is sometimes called a sergeant’s fight, even a private’s.
“I’m sorry we had to meet this way.”
“Well, now we’re acquaintances,” the man said. “Next time you can come and have tea and you don’t have to kick down my door.”