REPORTING FROM KABUL -- President Hamid Karzai demanded Wednesday that the U.S.-led NATO force refrain from nighttime strikes on Afghan residential compounds -- raids that are described by the Western military as a key tactic in the fight against the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
The president’s call came at the opening of a three-day loya jirga, or grand council, attended by nearly 2,000 tribal elders, community leaders and dignitaries. The Afghan capital was under a virtual lockdown for the start of the gathering, after a flurry of Taliban threats were launched against participants.
Karzai has previously spoken out against night raids, but his unyielding language in a forum as high-profile as the jirga pointed to the continuing difficulties in working out a long-term security pact with the United States. Negotiators have been trying for months to conclude the so-called strategic partnership accord, addressing U.S.-Afghan relations after the Western combat mission winds down in 2014, and night raids have been a sticking point.
“We want an end to house searches by the U.S. and NATO; it is not acceptable to us,” Karzai told his audience of tribal leaders in turbans and robes, intermingled with representatives of civic groups in Western business dress. “We don’t accept night raids on our houses -- absolutely not.”
U.S. military officials credit night raids with doing significant damage to the field leadership tier of the Taliban and offshoot groups such as the Haqqani network, resulting in the capture or deaths of hundreds of insurgent commanders. But the strikes are widely loathed by Afghans, who consider intrusions into homes a major cultural affront.
Human rights groups have also argued that night raids pose a danger to civilians because it is easy for civilians to be mistaken for combatants in darkness and confusion. Also, most rural Afghans have weapons in their homes, and could likely fire on any intruders.
Western officials have long maintained that a large percentage of the raids are carried out without firing a shot. But an independent study earlier this year suggested that they are militarily counterproductive, in part because of mistaken killings and arrests that inflame the Afghan people against the Western military presence.
As the jirga was getting under way, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, reported the deaths of two service members in southern Afghanistan. Their nationalities were not disclosed, in keeping with ISAF policy. The majority of troops in the south are American or British.
-- Laura King
Photo: Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks as he inaugurates Loya Jirga, grand assembly in Kabul. Credit: Ahmad Masood / Reuters