US Is Reining In Special Forces in Afghanistan

Published on
by
The New York Times

US Is Reining In Special Forces in Afghanistan

by
Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Rod Nordland

General Stanley McChrystal, head of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Critics, including Afghan officials, human rights workers and some field commanders of conventional American forces, say that Special Operations forces have been responsible for a large number of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan and operate by their own rules. (AFP/Jim Watson)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, has brought most American Special Operations forces under his direct control for the first time, out of concern over continued civilian casualties and disorganization among units in the field.

“What happens is, sometimes at cross-purposes, you got one hand doing one thing and one hand doing the other, both trying to do the right thing but working without a good outcome,” General McChrystal said in an interview.

Critics, including Afghan officials, human rights workers and some field commanders of conventional American forces, say that Special Operations forces have been responsible for a large number of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan and operate by their own rules.

Maj. Gen. Zahir Azimi, the chief spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said that General McChrystal had told Afghan officials he was taking the action because of concern that some American units were not following his orders to make limiting civilian casualties a paramount objective.

“These special forces were not accountable to anyone in the country, but General McChrystal and we carried the burden of the guilt for the mistakes they committed,” he said. “Whenever there was some problem with the special forces we didn’t know who to go to, it was muddled and unclear who was in charge.”

General McChrystal has made reducing civilian casualties a cornerstone of his new counterinsurgency strategy, and his campaign has had some success: last year, civilian deaths attributed to the United States military were cut by 28 percent, although there were 596 civilian deaths attributed to coalition forces, according to United Nations figures. Afghan and United Nations officials blame Special Operations troops for most of those deaths.

“In most of the cases of civilian casualties, special forces are involved,” said Mohammed Iqbal Safi, head of the defense committee in the Afghan Parliament, who participated in joint United States-Afghan investigations of civilian casualties last year. “We’re always finding out they are not obeying the rules that other forces have to in Afghanistan.”

“These forces often operate with little or no accountability and exacerbate the anger and resentment felt by communities,” the Human Rights Office of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan wrote in its report on protection of civilians for 2009.

Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, General McChrystal’s deputy chief of staff for communications, cautioned against putting undue blame on Special Operations forces. Since night raids are dangerous, and most missions take place at night, most of them are carried out by the more highly trained special groups. In January, General McChrystal issued restrictions on night raids.

Admiral Smith said that General McChrystal had issued the new directive on Special Operations forces within “the last two or three weeks.” While it is being circulated for comment within the military and has not been formally announced, General McChrystal has already put it into practical effect, he said.

Only detainee operations and “very small numbers of U.S. S.O.F.,” or Special Operations forces, are exempted from the directive, Admiral Smith said. That is believed to include elite groups like the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s Seals.

Previously, Special Operations forces in Afghanistan often had separate chains of command to their own headquarters elsewhere. That remained true even after General McChrystal was appointed last year and consolidated the NATO and American military commands under his own control.

Three recent high profile cases of civilian casualties illustrate the concern over Special Operations forces.

On Feb. 21 in Oruzgan Province, a small Special Operations forces unit heard that a group of Taliban were heading their way and called for air support. Attack helicopters killed 27 civilians in three trucks, mistaking them for the Taliban.

Military video appeared to show the victims were civilians, and no weapons were recovered from them. “What I saw on that video would not have led me to pull the trigger,” one NATO official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with his department’s rules. “It was one of the worst things I’ve seen in a while.”

General McChrystal promptly apologized for the Oruzgan episode, both directly to Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, and in a videotaped statement released to local television stations.

On Feb. 12 in a village near Gardez, in Paktia Province, Afghan police special forces paired with American Special Operations forces raided a house late at night looking for two Taliban suspects, and instead killed a local police chief and a district prosecutor when they came out, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, to investigate. Three women who came to their aid, according to interviews with family members and friends, were also killed; one was a pregnant mother of 10, the other a pregnant mother of 6.

A press release from the International Security Assistance Force, as NATO’s force here is known, said at first that the three women had been discovered bound and gagged, apparently killed execution style. NATO officials now say their bodies were wrapped in traditional manner before burial. Admiral Smith said Afghan forces fired the shots in the compound.

“The regret is that two innocent males died,” Admiral Smith said. “The women, I’m not sure anyone will ever know how they died.” He added, however, “I don’t know that there are any forensics that show bullet penetrations of the women or blood from the women.” He said they showed signs of puncture and slashing wounds from a knife, and appeared to have died several hours before the arrival of the assault force. In respect for Afghan customs, autopsies are not carried out on civilian victims, he said.

Interviews with relatives and family friends give a starkly different account and described an American cover-up. They say a large number of people had gathered for a party in honor of the birth of a grandson of the owner of the house, Hajji Sharaf Udin. After most had gone to sleep, the police commander, Mr. Udin’s son, Mohammed Daoud, went out to investigate the arrival of armed men and was shot fatally.

When a second son, Mohammed Zahir, went out to talk to the Americans because he spoke some English, he too was shot and killed. The three women — Mr. Udin’s 19-year-old granddaughter, Gulalai; his 37-year-old daughter, Saleha, the mother of 10 children; and his daughter-in-law, Shirin, the mother of six — were all gunned down when they tried to help the victims, these witnesses claimed.

All the survivors interviewed insisted that Americans, who they said were not in uniform, conducted the raid and the killings, and entered the compound before Afghan forces. Among the witnesses was Sayid Mohammed Mal, vice chancellor of Gardez University, whose son’s fiancée, Gulalai, was killed. “They were killed by the Americans,” he said. “If the government doesn’t listen to us, I have 50 family members, I’ll bring them all to Gardez roundabout and we’ll pour petrol on ourselves and burn ourselves to death.”

On Dec. 26 in Kunar Province, a night raid was launched on what authorities thought was a Taliban training facility; they later discovered that they had killed all nine religious students in a residential school. Admiral Smith said United States Special Operations forces were nearby at the time, but not directly involved in the attack, which was carried out by an Afghan unit.

Admiral Smith confirmed that all three events, which took place outside of any larger battle, involved Special Operations forces. But he said that General McChrystal’s unified command initiative was not in response to those events.

He depicted General McChrystal’s new policy as a natural outgrowth of the general’s plans all along to unify his command; when he first took charge, he brought together under his control what had been separate NATO and American command structures in Afghanistan.

The NATO official said that the unified command initiative would be obeyed, though it was not universally popular. “They may not like it, they may not want to follow it, but they are going to follow it,” the official said.

Aides to General McChrystal say he has been deeply troubled by the continuing episodes of civilian casualties, including the three major ones still under investigation. “You won’t believe how focused on these issues this command is, almost more than anything else,” the NATO official said.

Mr. Safi, the Parliament member, expressed concern that with the continued exemption of some Special Operations units from the directive, the problem of civilian casualties would continue. “If they are excluded, naturally it means the same thing will happen,” he said. “If there are individuals who do not obey McChrystal, then what are they doing in this country?”

General McChrystal addressed that concern in the interview. “There are no operators in this country that I am not absolutely comfortable do exactly what I want them to do,” he said. “So I don’t have any complaints about that, particularly after the latest change.”

Tension between Special Operations and conventional commanders has often surfaced in the American military, but General McChrystal himself has a great deal of credibility in the black operations world. Before he became the top commander in Afghanistan, he was in charge of the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan, which ran elite, secretive counterterrorism units, believed to include Delta Force and the Seals, hunting high-value targets.

Reporting was contributed by Sangar Rahimi in Kabul; Alissa J. Rubin in Kunar, Afghanistan; Thom Shanker in Washington; and an employee of The New York Times in Khost, Afghanistan.

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