US To Step Aside On Afghan Night Raids

U.S. and Afghan officials have worked out the details over controversial night raids against suspected Taliban fighters. Now, Afghan Special Forces will take over the raids, and the U.S. will offer support. The night raids were a source of great anger among Afghan people, who hated the Americans bursting into their compounds. The raids were the last stumbling block to a long-term strategic partnership that is expected to be announced at a NATO summit in Chicago in May. Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman tells the latest to Audie Cornish.

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Now to a compromise in Afghanistan on a controversial part of the military effort there: night raids. The U.S. considers them critical, a way to grab insurgents while they sleep. Afghans consider them an affront to their sovereignty and culture. The compromise hands the mission to Afghan special forces and keeps Americans in a support role. The agreement is a key step as the U.S. tries to wind down the war in Afghanistan. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us to explain. Hey there, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So give us a little background. Why are these night raids so important to the U.S. mission?

BOWMAN: Well, Audie, just as the name implies, these were raids in the dark of night by the U.S. military. They drop in by helicopter or sweep in on all-terrain vehicles, ATVs, and capture or kill suspected Taliban insurgents. There have been thousands of these in the last few years and the American military will tell you it's one of the most effective ways, for years now, of taking Taliban commanders and bomb-makers off the battlefield.

CORNISH: So what is it that the Afghans see going on?

BOWMAN: Well, the Afghans - of course, there's growing anger among the Afghans over this thing. Afghan civilians - you know, having foreign troops burst into your compound in the middle of the night. And, particularly in this traditional and religious society, one of the big issues centered around women in these compounds in their nightclothes, not having time to put on head scarves, not having time to be placed in a separate room while the Americans searched.

Now, I've been on many patrols during the daytime where U.S. soldiers or Marines would knock on a compound, be respectful and give women time to collect themselves. The Afghans insist on this, but that wouldn't happen on these night raids, so that's one reason they're so sensitive.

CORNISH: So then, how would a night raid work under this new agreement?

BOWMAN: Well, now the Afghans will run the night raids and, actually, they have been running them since December and they're completely in charge now and the Americans will offer support. Now, that could be transporting the Afghan forces by helicopter, maybe providing perimeter security during a raid, a medical evacuation, that kind of thing.

And, Audie, these raids really have evolved over the last few years. I was in Western Afghanistan three years ago. It was an American Green Beret raid. They went out and got a Taliban bomb-maker. They pretty much did it on their own. But the last couple of years, Afghans have been playing a greater and greater role. In nearly all the night raids now, you have an Afghan presence.

And, with this new change, the Afghan special forces and commandos will take charge of these raids and they're growing in number and competence. I've seen them in the field and the Americans speak very highly of them. They're, by all accounts, very good soldiers and they'll be in charge.

CORNISH: So then, looking forward, in a little more than two years, Afghan security forces are supposed to take over all missions in their country. Right? Not just night raids.

BOWMAN: That's right. At the end of 2014, the Afghans are supposed to take full responsibility for their own security across the country. And these night raids were really the last obstacle to what the U.S. and Afghans were calling a long term strategic partnership. So this deal really clears the way for that.

And what that means is that both sides can now focus on the relationship into 2015 and beyond and that includes everything from, you know, U.S. military trainers, American Green Berets helping out on counter-terror missions, others maybe helping build and Afghan air force. And also, part of that would be economic development, aid and other assistance for the Afghans.

So this deal on night raids goes far beyond just those raids. It's really about the way ahead for the U.S. and Afghanistan well into the future.

CORNISH: Tom, thank you for bringing us up to date.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Audie.

CORNISH: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman talking about a compromise between the U.S. and Afghanistan on how night raids are carried out.

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