Obama cedes U.S. control over vital counter-terrorism measure in Afghanistan.
The United States has agreed to give control of most special operations to the Afghan army, including the controversial "night-time raids" that have strained relations between the two countries for years. Many observers agree that the night raids have been the most effective weapon against the Taliban during the course of the war. The fact that the US no longer has control over these operations could mean that actionable intelligence would be wasted because of delays brought about by the Afghan army taking too much time to decide on a course of action.
The deal comes on the heels of another agreement signed last month that hands the management of the sprawling Bagram prison and its 3,000 prisoners over to the Afghan government. The two pacts clear the way for a comprehensive treaty on the long-term strategic partnership sought by the United States that would govern American policy after all combat troops are withdrawn in 2014. Washington would like that deal in place before the NATO summit in May.
Despite reservations by many US Afghan commanders, the agreement will give the Afghan army veto power over any suggested night-time raids, while allowing Afghan special forces to be "first through the door" when the raids are executed. Decisions on the raids will be made by an as yet unnamed board made up of "an inter-ministry Afghan command center with representatives of the Defense and Interior ministries as well as the National Directorate of Security," according to the New York Times. An Afghan judge will have to sign off on a warrant for any raid, but not until a court is "capable of issuing timely and operationally secure judicial authorizations." It is believed that some warrants may be granted after the raid is completed, but within 48 hours of their authorization.
American forces will still be responsible for most logistical aspects of the raids, including intelligence, transportation, and fire support in case air power or artillery is called for. One controversial provision of the deal is that all prisoners captured during the raids will be in Afghan military custody. The US will only be able to interrogate them if the Afghans ask them.
The pact encompasses most special operations, except for those conducted by the CIA, and other unspecified unilateral US combat actions.
The agreement removes a sore point in US-Afghanistan relations. President Hamid Karzai has been complaining for years about night-time raids that have terrified Afghan civilians as soldiers break into their homes in the middle of the night seeking Taliban commanders and fighters. While casualties are rare, there is nothing that enrages the locals like the killing of civilians in their own home. There have also been cultural concerns and bitter resentment, as the soldiers not only violate the sanctity of the domicile, but also Afghan traditions regarding the hiding of women from strangers, especially men. For Karzai, there was also the question of Afghan sovereignty being ignored in these raids, largely carried out with no consultation with his government. Although the US claims that lately, most of these raids have been conducted with Afghans in the lead, that practice has now been formalized with the advent of the agreement.
US Commander in Afghanistan Marine General John Allen hailed the pact as being "one step closer to the establishment of the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership. Most importantly, today we are one step closer to our shared goal and vision of a secure and sovereign Afghanistan." Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said, “This is an important step in strengthening the sovereignty of Afghanistan,” adding that it was “a national goal” and “a wish of the Afghan people” that raids be conducted and controlled by Afghans."
Some observers wonder how this set-up will work in practice. The New York Times reports that, according to American officials, "[t]he inter-ministry group would … decide whether to go after a target and dispatch Afghan special operations forces to carry out the raid. The Afghans can request American assistance at any juncture in the operation — for intelligence, for back up military support, air support, medical evacuation and post-operation intelligence gathering."
But some observers question how nimble the inter-ministry group can be. One reason US military commanders were wary of ceding so much authority for the raids to the Afghan military is that the operations have been hugely successful -- perhaps the most successful tool used by coalition forces in the war to date. Hundreds of Taliban commanders have been captured or killed based on intelligence that is only viable for a few hours, as most of the enemy are constantly on the move, sleeping in different quarters almost every night. Farming out the decision making for night time raids to a committee invites delay. Daily Beast writers Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai point to the fact that the agreement "seems to put a rather cumbersome bureaucracy in command of operations that need to be lightning-fast as the targets of the raids move constantly."
Since the US will only have "input" into the decision to carry out a raid, and will only take part if asked by the inter-ministry group, valuable and actionable intelligence may fall through the cracks as the Afghan army and courts work the kinks out of the system. They may never do so, which would be a boon for the Taliban as the war enters a phase in US-Afghan relations critical to the future of Karzai's government. The agreement on night raids removed a big obstacle to moving forward with negotiating a long term commitment of the American military to the security of Afghanistan after almost all combat troops depart in 2014. And another, equally contentious road block was removed last month when the Americans agreed to hand control of Bagram's prison over to the Afghan government.
That pact calls for the US to transfer prisoners and security responsibilities to the Afghan government at the largest prison in the country over the next 6 months. Bagram was the scene of deadly protests over the accidental burning of some Korans last month, and the US was -- and is -- doubtful that the Afghans have enough trained guards to handle the more than 3,000 terrorists and Taliban fighters incarcerated there.
But the agreement gives the US veto power over any release of detainees by the Afghans, and allows us to monitor conditions closely, given that there are some prisons run by the Afghans that have been discovered to have tortured detainees. Despite our giving the Afghans control over Bagram, we are still responsible for the treatment of those prisoners according to international law, and being able to keep an eye on conditions after the handover was something US negotiators insisted upon.
Both the agreement on Bagram and the special operations pact now make a treaty setting out America's long-term commitment to Afghanistan's security far more likely. President Obama wants the deal negotiated before the NATO summit which will be in Chicago on May 20-21, now a distinct possibility. While the document will be short on details, it is likely to permit several thousand trainers and special forces personnel to remain in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014.
But how effective can our military be prior to that if the night raids, now under Afghan control, fail to achieve the kind of success they enjoyed previously? The Taliban has been advancing in several areas of the country, most notably in the south and north, as we have handed security responsibilities off to the Afghan army only to see the situation worsen when we do.
This agreement may lead to a broader, more comprehensive treaty covering our long term commitment to Afghanistan. But it may be ruinous to the security of the Afghan people in the short term.
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