Image: U.S. Marines with Alpha Company gather before a night mission
Brennan Linsley  /  AP file
U.S. Marines with Alpha Company - Task Force Raider, 2nd Recon Battalion, gather inside a combat outpost before a night mission in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. NATO in this Oct. 12, 2009 file photo.
updated 2/24/2010 5:07:15 PM ET 2010-02-24T22:07:15

American troops knocked on the door, and before the Afghan family could find the key to let them in, the soldiers broke it down.

There was no time to take women in the home to another place, said 77-year-old Mohammad Nabi. And that's what troubled the retired school teacher most about the intrusion in the southern town of Marjah.

"If they ask us to take our women and daughters in another place and then they do the search, we have no problems," Nabi told an Associated Press reporter. "We will cooperate with them. But they just enter the house and start searching and they don't care who is there."

A new directive, confirmed Wednesday by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, aims to limit such nighttime raids on civilians. It was prompted by a storm of complaints from Afghans who, like Nabi, who were enraged over foreign soldiers bursting into their homes.

A cultural line
The move is the most recent by coalition forces to woo the Afghan public away from the Taliban.

"We didn't understand what a cultural line it was," McChrystal said during a luncheon with a group of young Afghans involved in a leadership program, part of a series he regularly holds to hear Afghan public opinion.

"We are trying to change the way we do these," he said.

Such raids emerged as the top concern by Afghans after McChrystal limited the use of airstrikes, which were responsible for the bulk of civilian deaths. He said the directive, whose details remain classified, was issued in late January. The AP had been told last month that NATO forces would limit night raids, but the change was only confirmed Wednesday.

A number of groups, along with the Afghan government and civilians, had been pressuring NATO to rethink the nighttime operations.

"Night raids cause tremendous trauma within Afghan communities, often alienating the very people whom international forces are supposedly trying to protect," said a 15-page report this week by the New York-based Open Society Institute, which promotes democracy, and an Afghan organization focusing on social development, The Liaison Group.

Raids can often turn violent, with detainees being kicked or beaten while handcuffed, the report said. It cited a U.N. report that said 98 civilians were killed during night raids in 2009.

Among the public, night raids by international troops raise anger because of cultural sensitivities, said Hamid Mohammad, head of the local chapter of a worldwide student leadership organization.

"If a foreign soldier goes into an Afghan house and if they even search boxes of the women's clothes, the men get very angry," he told McChrystal. "This is the thing that creates problems for international forces and destroys the perception of (NATO) among the local people."

Such raids remain a strategy
Mohammad said the best way to conduct such searches would be to use Afghan forces because "they just know what to do and they know what kind of behavior is acceptable."

NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said he could not give specifics on the directive but that it does not limit the ability of troops to operate.

"It simply reiterates the commander's directive to consider other points of view and to consider other cultural sensitivities," he said, adding that night raids remain a necessary tactic.

A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because a declassified version of the order had not been released said the directive instructs commanders to let Afghan troops knock on doors or forcibly enter Afghan homes and compounds at night.

It also tells NATO troops to determine whether anything would be lost by waiting until daylight, the official said.

Public outrage over civilian deaths prompted McChrystal last year to tighten the rules under which NATO forces operate, restricting the use of airstrikes and other weaponry if civilians are at risk.

Civilian deaths soared last year
Afghan civilian deaths soared to 2,412 last year — the highest number in any year of the 8-year war, according to a U.N. report. But the deaths attributed to allied troops dropped nearly 30 percent as a result of the new rules, according to the report.

In the current NATO-Afghan assault on the Taliban haven of Marjah, NATO has focused on a counterinsurgency strategy that makes protecting civilians the priority over killing insurgents. NATO has limited the use of airstrikes and set strict rules when troops can open fire — moves that have slowed the advance but probably spared many civilian losses.

Nevertheless, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said Wednesday it had confirmed 28 civilian deaths in the Marjah fighting. Thirteen children were among the dead. Another 70 civilians were wounded, 30 of them children, the commission said.

NATO has reported at least 16 civilian deaths.

‘Incredibly offensive’
Though night raids are less deadly as a whole than airstrikes, they can be equally lethal in terms of turning public opinion, said human rights lawyer Erica Gaston, who co-authored the Open Society Institute report.

"It's such an inflammatory tactic. It's considered incredibly offensive to Afghan communities. It's such a long-standing issue with them," she said.

The often aggressive conduct during raids and the lack of accountability afterward only help fuel propaganda against international forces and the Afghan government, the report said.

For troops in Marjah, in southern Helmand province, the tightened rules on night raids are already in use.

"We're trying to strictly limit the number of raids at night to ensure the population as a whole remains on our side," said Capt. Nolan Rinehart, an intelligence officer with the 5th Stryker Brigade. "It's not to say it can't be done, it's just to say, if you're going to do it, you have to have good reason."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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