U.S. Halted Some Raids in Afghanistan
By MARK MAZZETTI and ERIC SCHMITT | March 9, 2009
WASHINGTON — The commander of a secretive branch of America’s Special Operations forces last month ordered a halt to most commando missions in Afghanistan, reflecting a growing concern that civilian deaths caused by American firepower are jeopardizing broader goals there.
The halt, which lasted about two weeks, came after a series of nighttime raids by Special Operations troops in recent months killed women and children, and after months of mounting outrage in Afghanistan about civilians killed in air and ground strikes. The order covered all commando missions except those against the highest-ranking leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, military officials said.
American commanders in Afghanistan rely on the commando units to carry out some of the most delicate operations against militant leaders, and the missions of the Army’s Delta Force and classified Navy Seals units are never publicly acknowledged. But the units sometimes carry out dozens of operations each week, so any decision to halt their missions is a sign of just how worried military officials are that the fallout from civilian casualties is putting in peril the overall American mission in Afghanistan, including an effort to drain the Taliban of popular support.
A United Nations report released last month specifically blamed clandestine missions by commando units for contributing to a surge in civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2008. The report concluded that the number of civilian casualties rose nearly 40 percent compared with 2007, although it found that suicide bombings and other Taliban attacks were the primary cause.
Military officials said the halt was ordered in part to allow American commanders time to impose new safeguards intended to reduce the risk of civilian deaths. They said it was also intended to help the military release information about civilian casualties more quickly, to pre-empt what some said have been exaggerated accounts by Afghan officials.
According to senior military officials, the stand-down was ordered by Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, the head of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the secret commando units.
The rising civilian death toll in Afghanistan has soured relations between American commanders and the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai, who has vocally criticized the raids.
The stand-down began in mid-February, and the raids have since resumed. It is unclear, though, whether the Special Operations missions are being carried out with the same frequency as before the halt.
At least two Special Operations ground raids in December helped fuel the tensions between the American military and Mr. Karzai. In one case, American troops raided a compound in Khost Province in an attempt to capture a Qaeda suspect. The suspect was taken into custody, but several civilians were killed and a 4-year-old boy was bitten by an attack dog used in the operation.
During another December raid, American troops killed six Afghan police officers and one civilian in Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan. An American military spokesman called the killings a “tragic case of mistaken identity.”
Some top civilian and military officials in Afghanistan say they believe that Mr. Karzai and some of his aides have at times exaggerated reports of civilian casualties to fuel anti-American sentiment for domestic political purposes. Mr. Karzai will run for re-election this year and is under political pressure to speak out against Afghan deaths at the hands of American troops.
Still, there is little dispute that the increased intensity of American military operations in Afghanistan last year has contributed to the rise in the civilian death toll. As President Obama sends thousands more troops to the war-ravaged country, some officials worry that each civilian death may only drive Afghans toward the Taliban and other militant groups.
One senior official said that procedures had been set up to allow American troops to report more quickly the number of enemy and civilian deaths after a specific operation, and to quickly disseminate the information to Afghan officials in Kabul, the capital, and at the local and provincial levels.
Officials also said the military had adopted new procedures aimed at reducing civilian casualties, but they did not specify what those procedures were.
Col. Gregory S. Julian, a spokesman for Gen. David D. McKiernan, who commands all American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, last week denied that there had been any halt to Special Operations missions. On Monday, however, Colonel Julian seemed to acknowledge that the stand-down had occurred, but he said his boss was not behind the order.
“General McKiernan takes the issue of civilian casualties very seriously, but he did not direct the pause in operations,” Colonel Julian said.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is in charge of American forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, supported the decision to suspend the Special Operations missions, according to a senior military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing classified military units. A White House spokesman declined to comment.
General McKiernan had issued a broad order on Dec. 30 that underscored the commitment of allied forces to reducing the risk of civilian casualties. He ordered that Afghan security forces should lead “all searches and entries of Afghan homes, mosques, religious sites or places of cultural significance,” unless there was a “clear and identified danger” coming from a building.
General McKiernan’s two-page directive followed American military operations last year that left dozens of civilians dead.
In perhaps the most notable case, American airstrikes on Aug. 22 in a village in western Afghanistan killed far more civilians than American commanders initially acknowledged.
A military investigator’s report found that more than 30 civilians, not 5 to 7 as the military had long insisted, had died in the airstrikes against what was believed to be a Taliban compound in Azizabad. The strikes were in support of allied ground forces, including American Special Operations forces.
The Afghan government initially insisted that 90 civilians died in the raid, and it never fully accepted the American military’s revised death toll.
An Official’s Grim Assessment
PARIS — As the United States prepares to commit 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the commander of NATO and American forces there said Monday that the coalition was “not winning” the war against the resurgent Taliban in parts of the country.
The commander, Gen. David D. McKiernan, said there were areas in the north, east and west where coalition and Afghan forces were winning the battle to curb the Taliban.
“But there are other areas — large areas in the southern part of Afghanistan especially, but in parts of the east — where we are not winning,” he said in an interview with the BBC.
“More has to happen along multiple lines of operation in order for anybody by any metric to say that the Afghans are winning or the efforts of the coalition are winning,” he said.
President Obama also said recently that the United States was not winning the Afghan war.