US alters strategy, makes gains after botched raid
Midnight strike in 2006 killed five Afghans
KHOST, Afghanistan - In the dead of night, in a remote Afghan village, US Special Forces commandos surrounded a home, hoping to arrest a high-value target. Hours later, five Afghans were dead, including a 14-year-old girl. The suspect was nowhere to be found.
The botched raid on Dec. 12, 2006, sparked a massive protest in the province of Khost that threatened to undermine the US effort to stabilize the region. Both the US military and the United Nations investigated the raid during the past year. Neither has made its findings public.
But the tragic chain of events that night helped bring about a near-ban on midnight raids by US soldiers in Khost, which were once a frequently used tactic in the province. The policy shift that is now credited with helping to revive public support for the US and Afghan governments and minimize support for the insurgency here.
"We have really tried to pull away from the US coalition doing 'hard knocks' and blowing off doors at night," Lieutenant Colonel Scott Custer, commander of the US military in Khost, said by phone. "We didn't want to have to go through that again."
Custer said he will permit nighttime raids only in rare circumstances. He instituted the new policy at the request of Khost's governor, Arsala Jamal, who also convinced Custer's team that if such a raid has to be conducted, Afghan soldiers should take the lead because they more likely to avoid fatal miscommunications and stir resentment.
"I'm telling them, 'You are more prone to making mistakes that we are. You have better equipment, technology, knowledge, but in this case, we are far better,' " Jamal said. "One operation can set the whole thing backwards for six months."
Since the changes, civilian deaths during nighttime raids in Khost have dropped from nine in 2006 to just one in 2007, Jamal said. At the same time, security in the province has improved. In 2006, 10 out of 12 districts in the province were classified by the US military as unfriendly to Afghan and US forces, Custer said. Now, four are considered hostile.
The December 2006 raid provides a stark illustration of how the death of civilians can undermine the US effort.
Three of the dead were family members of Shafiq Mandozai, the manager of a private bank in Khost who had worked closely with the American Provincial Reconstruction Team to modernize the pay system for Afghan soldiers. Mandozai's father and uncle, who were among the dead, had worked for President Hamid Karzai's government.
In a recent interview at his home, Mandozai said the family awoke to shouting and gunfire. He said he thought the Taliban had come to attack them for being pro-American.
"I never thought that Americans would ever come after me," he said. "There were no signs that they were Americans. We have had very good relations with Americans."
Under cover of night, the US soldiers had intended to raid the home of Mandozai's neighbor, where they believed the man they wanted was staying, according to Jamal, the province governor. But Mandozai felt his household was under attack, and fired out of the window, he said.
US soldiers, defending themselves, returned fire.
Mandozai's father, who was the director of a unit of the Afghan government's agriculture department, was shot in the leg and died hours later. Mandozai's 14-year-old sister was fatally shot as she ran to him. His uncle, an intelligence officer in a neighboring province, crawled out on the roof during the firefight and was also shot to death. It was unknown if he had fired any shots.
Two of Mandozai's sisters, aged 8 and 13, were wounded by bullets from the US troops. Two other villagers who ran outside of their homes, trying to defend a nearby girls' school from what they believed was a Taliban attack, were also killed by Americans soldiers, according to Jamal and Mandozai.
The surviving family members took refuge in the bathroom. Later, the Afghan translator for the US soldiers called for the family to come out. But the accent was from Kandahar, so the family members assumed he was from the Taliban, Mandozai said. American soldiers eventually poured into the house to interrogate the survivors. After Mandozai showed his bank identification card, they left him alone. No one was arrested.
The US military issued a release the next day, saying that "four suspected terrorists and an adolescent girl" had been killed. But two days later, thousands of Afghans gathered on a nearby highway and protested, according to local news reports. Tribal leaders demanded to know why the US military did not inform Afghan forces of the raid or ask them to participate.
The UN sent investigators to interview witnesses and the family but has kept its findings secret, citing the desire not to anger the US military and the difficulty of determining who was at fault. Karzai's government apologized for the killings and made condolence payments to the family, Mandozai said, adding that Lieutenant Colonel David Bushey, the US commander in Khost, also visited the home.
Khost was still reeling from the raid when Custer arrived in spring 2007 to relieve Bushey. During the transition, Bushey and Jamal told Custer about how the raid set back their efforts to win the support of residents, Custer said.
"A negative event here can take two or three months of your time," he said. "It's much easier to influence things in a positive way if you don't have a negative incident dragging you down."
A few months later, Jamal requested that Custer end the night raids. Custer was initially skeptical, feeling that tough tactics were needed to keep insurgents at bay. But over time, as he gained trust in Jamal, he agreed to make the change.
Custer also decided to send his soldiers out to live in the districts, bolstering security in remote villages and helping support the local Afghan authorities. Now, instead of conducting raids to net a low-level person of interest, Afghan authorities often contacts the individual and he shows up on his own accord for questioning, Custer and Jamal said. High-value targets are still caught by surprise, but Afghan forces are more closely involved in those operations.
"In the last one year, we have been very successful," Jamal said. "You can do it in daylight, call him to the office, tell him 'This is what we think you are guilty of,' and arrest him. . . . If you go after him at night, crush the gates, with children and women sleeping, people will not understand."
The situation in Khost is still fragile.
The province still endures suicide bombings and Jamal has survived a string of assassination attempts. Afghan national forces, backed by US troops, recently led a battle against insurgents in one of the last remaining "unfriendly" districts.
But in recent months, shops, restaurants, and schools have reopened and people express a new faith in the Afghan government. A steady stream of American visitors have come through in recent months to investigate the improvement.
"A lot of people are interested in how we have been able to turn this from a really kinetic environment to the people changing their behavior and their feelings toward the Coalition," Custer said. "Khost was the worst province in all Afghanistan and now its the most secure."
Farah Stockman reported from Washington. Globe correspondent Kamal Sadaat contributed from Khost.