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Despite Gains, Night Raids Split US and Karzai

WASHINGTON — For the United States, a recent tripling in the number of night raids by Special Operations forces to capture or kill Afghan insurgents has begun to put heavy pressure on the Taliban and change the momentum in the war in Afghanistan. For President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, the raids cause civilian casualties and are a rising political liability, so much so that he is now loudly insisting that the Americans stop the practice.

The difference — and a flare-up over the raids between Mr. Karzai and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Afghanistan — is likely to be a central focus at a NATO summit this week in Lisbon, where the United States and NATO are to present a plan that seeks to end the combat mission in Afghanistan by 2014.

Publicly, the Obama administration took a diplomatic tone so as not to further inflame the situation before the Lisbon meeting, which will include President Obama, other NATO leaders and Mr. Karzai.

“On President Karzai’s concerns, we share these concerns,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters on Monday. “We’ve discussed them on a number of occasions.” But she stressed that “these operations are conducted in full partnership with the government of Afghanistan.”

At the center of the public debate — the latest chapter in the tense relationship between the United States and Mr. Karzai — is an American military tactic that, while used for years, has become a cornerstone of General Petraeus’s strategy to reassert NATO and Afghan control over contested parts of Afghanistan since the American troop buildup reached its peak at the end of the summer.

More than a dozen times each night, teams of American and allied Special Operations forces and Afghan troops surround houses or compounds across the country. In some cases helicopters hover overhead. Using bullhorns, the Afghans demand occupants come out or be met with violence. In the majority of cases — about 80 percent, according to NATO statistics — the occupants are captured rather than killed.

As recently as early July, Special Operations forces were carrying out an average of five raids a night, mostly in southern Afghanistan. But in a 90-day period that ended Nov. 11, Special Operations forces were averaging 17 missions a night, conducting 1,572 operations over three months that resulted in 368 insurgent leaders killed or captured, and 968 lower-level insurgents killed and 2,477 captured, according to NATO statistics.

Many Afghans see the raids as a flagrant, even humiliating symbol of American power, especially when women and children are rousted in the middle of the night. And protests have increased this year as the tempo has increased.

In one high-profile encounter in February, 23 Afghan male civilians were killed and 12 Afghan women and children were wounded in a helicopter attack when Army Special Forces were operating in a village in Oruzgan Province. An Air Force investigation concluded that a Predator drone operator had dismissed two warnings about the presence of youths in the area before military commanders ordered the helicopter to attack.

Mr. Karzai told The Washington Post on Sunday, in the interview that created the latest outbreak of controversy, that the raids were undermining support for the American-led war effort.

“The Afghan people don’t like these raids. If there is any raid, it has to be done by the Afghan government, within the Afghan laws,” he told The Post.

Secretary Clinton and other American officials insist that Afghan troops have participated as full partners.

NATO officials in Kabul say that representatives from the Afghan ministries of defense and interior, and from Mr. Karzai’s own national directorate of security, work inside the operations center and approve each mission.

They also say that new rules have significantly decreased the chances of civilian casualties, and are intended to make the American-led raids seem less like an affront to Afghan sovereignty.

For one thing, Afghans are the first ones in to search any homes or compounds, and female Afghan police officers accompany the missions in case female detainees must be searched.

“They check the due-diligence box in very credible ways,” said Bill Harris, a retired senior Foreign Service officer who recently wrapped up a yearlong tour leading the State Department’s provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar.

With a major increase in surveillance planes, more cellphone monitoring and a rise in informers as local residents gain confidence in their security, the Americans say the compounds and the people in them are now more precisely pinpointed. They say the raids are focused on Taliban shadow governors, midlevel insurgent commanders and people who handle finances and logistics for the Taliban.

That, in turn, puts pressure on senior Taliban leaders operating in the safe havens of Pakistan, according to a strategy outlined by General Petraeus, who hopes they may be forced to the bargaining table.

Administration officials said they are hoping Mr. Karzai will temper his comments on the raids at the NATO summit in Lisbon, where the way ahead in Afghanistan is a main topic.

“He wants to get to the point where the south and east of the country don’t have dozens of raids every night,” said an administration official involved in Afghan policy, acknowledging that the raids pose a political problem for the Afghan president.

“He wants to drive a return to normalcy. It’s not normal to have night raids happening in your village. I just think when he does these things he speaks less precisely than we would like. If he had said the same thing in the context of transition and where he hopes and expects the international effort to go, it wouldn’t have been a crisis.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said he was baffled by Mr. Karzai’s comments. He said the topic of the night raids never came up during a dinner he attended last week with Mr. Karzai and other senators in Kabul. The raids, he said, were crucial to the military strategy.

“If you took the night raids off the table,” Mr. Graham said in an interview on Monday, “it would be a disaster for the Petraeus strategy.”

Screw Karzai

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