IWPR – Institute for War and Peace Reporting (Author)
The renewal of night time counter-terrorism raids by Afghan special forces in the southern province of Helmand have been cautiously welcomed by local officials and activists.
The tactic of entering villages at night had proved hugely controversial in the past due to high rates of civilian casualties and what was viewed as an unacceptable violation of privacy.
They caused such resentment towards coalition forces among ordinary Afghans that responsibility for such operations were transferred to Afghanistan’s national forces in 2012 and suspended altogether the following year. President Ashraf Ghani quietly allowed them to resume following his 2014 election.
In recent months, commandos backed by coalition air support have attacked insurgents operating in a number of northern Helmand districts, including Girishk, Musa Qala, Kajaki and Nawzad.
Afghan military officials say that these raids have upset Taleban operations, including shutting down a number of illegal prisons run by the insurgents. Hundreds of detainees had been released from these sites as a result.
Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, commander of the 215 Maiwand Military Corps in Helmand, said night raids were an essential tactic to disrupt and dismantle militant networks which now had the support of the local population.
“Raids by our commandos are proving successful and they will remain ongoing until the enemy is destroyed,” he told IWPR. “These special operations have the backing of the public because we are careful to ensure there are no civilian casualties or financial losses incurred as a result.”
Helmand is a major centre of opium production where Afghan and coalition forces had both long struggled to subdue the Taleban. Militants continue to close in on the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, and government forces have sustained heavy losses. Afghan commanders, meanwhile, have pleaded with the US military to intensify airstrikes, a request which Ghani broadly supports.
Omar Zwak, a spokesman for Helmand’s governor, told IWPR that renewed night time raids first began three months ago.
He confirmed most of the strikes focused on northern districts in the province, adding that some southern districts including Nad Ali, Garmsir, and Dishu had been targeted, too. He said that bomb factories had been hit as well as a number of Taleban prisons.
“More than 400 people have been freed from detention as a result of these special operations,” he said. “Most of them are civilians,” he added.
Helmand provincial police chief Abdul Ghafar Safi said, “Afghan special forces are continuing to carry out raids across Helmand in an effort to retake areas that have come under the control of the Taleban.”
A Taleban spokesman refused to comment, but Helmand activist Abdul Haq Zwakman told IWPR, “Recent operations appear to have been a success and there have been no complaints from civilians.”
Indeed, some local residents say that the mood is broadly positive.
“Friends of mine who travel to and from Lashkar Gah tell me these special forces night raids have proved very damaging to the Taleban,” said Musa Qala resident Habibullah. “Unlike before, they cannot gather in one place as they are scared of being targeted.”
This apparent domestic support is even more remarkable considering the contentious history of such operations. Former president Hamid Karzai repeatedly denounced the strategy as an affront to the sanctity of Afghan homes, and in 2013 claimed his refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) – which set out conditions for US troops to remain in Afghanistan – was chiefly due to his objections to night raids. Ghani later signed the BSA after he won the presidential election the following year.
Helmand provincial council member Haji Abdul Hamid Akhundzada said that, considering this troubled history, it was important to avoid complacency.
“These recent night raids have been effective but given what has occurred in previous years we must remain cautious. We must continue to do everything we can to avoid any civilian casualties.”
Local activist Nazar Mohammad Roday said that the costs must be carefully weighed against the be benefits of such tactics.
“Helmand residents are tired of war. If these operations help to establish peace and security then the government is right to carry them out,” he continued.
“If our security forces can keep the areas which are cleared of the insurgents following the night raids then this is a good thing.
“But if insurgents then retake control of these same districts then it’s better to avoid these operations in the first place as they can cause so much hardship for the people and the government.”
But Lashkar Gah resident Qudratullah said that local people were suffering so deeply under the insurgency that night raids were bringing them new hope.
“We are tired of war - life has become so hard for us lately,” he said. “But it seems Afghan forces are making progress now and so we’re more hopeful.
“The Taleban have imprisoned many innocent people here and so when they’re freed by our forces it comes as good news to our people.”
This report was produced under IWPR’s Supporting Investigative Reporting in Local Media and Strengthening Civil Society across Afghanistan initiative, funded by the British Embassy Kabul.