NATO's top commander in Afghanistan plans to tighten the rules on night raids on private homes, even if it means losing some tactical advantage, to curb rising public anger.
NATO spokesman Rear Adm. Gregory Smith told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview that a directive would be issued soon to set down the new rules.
Nighttime raids on private homes have emerged as the Afghans' No. 1 complaint after Gen. Stanley McChrystal limited the use of airstrikes and other weaponry last year. The U.S. and allied nations have made protecting the population a priority over the use of massive firepower as they seek to undermine support for the Taliban.
"It addresses the issue that's probably the most socially irritating thing that we do — and that is entering people's homes at night," Smith said Wednesday at his office in Kabul. He would not elaborate pending a formal announcement.
The U.S.-led force has become increasingly sensitive to complaints by Afghan civilians as part of a renewed effort to win support among the public and lure people away from the Taliban. Night operations risk offending Afghan sensitivity about men entering homes where women are sleeping.
Rafiullah Khiel, a Finance Ministry employee whose uncle was detained by NATO forces during a night raid last fall, said the distraught women and children in the compound were rounded up and locked in a watchtower for several hours while soldiers searched the dwellings. Khiel said the soldiers told the family that they had information that the uncle, a pharmacist, was treating Taliban fighters.
"This is just unacceptable to us, to our traditions," Khiel said, holding back tears as he recounted the ordeal during an interview in a home on the outskirts of Kabul. "These kinds of actions, these wrong decisions, just make people turn against them."
The inability of the Afghan government to stop what many of its constituents consider abuse in turn generates support for the militants.
Smith said complaints about civilian deaths from airstrikes had dropped sharply after McChrystal's order last year, but Afghans are "not seeing enough difference in our nighttime operations."
He acknowledged the possible tactical issues in limiting nighttime action, which gives troops with sophisticated night vision equipment an upper hand and provides an element of surprise. But he said the problem needed to be addressed in the effort to win the confidence of Afghan civilians and keep them from supporting the Taliban.
"We're not going to be in a position to stop all that activity," he said, suggesting more operations could be carried out during the day in less dangerous areas.
While the July order by McChrystal ranged from limiting airstrikes to insisting that international troops be accompanied by Afghan forces, Smith said the upcoming directive would deal specifically with night raids.
Regional officials welcomed the shift, saying it would help improve relations between the NATO forces, the government and civilians.
"In the past we had several complaints because of civilian casualties during night raids," said the acting governor of the volatile Khost province that borders Pakistan, Tahir Khan Sabari. "If these things happen during the day, that won't happen as much. It's also good for relations between the government and the public."
According to a recent U.N. report, 98 Afghan civilians were killed last year during search operations — 16 percent of those killed by pro-government forces. The U.N. said the overall percentage of deaths attributed to Afghan and NATO forces dropped last year. The report credited the decline to NATO's new emphasis on protecting civilians and curbing airstrikes.
Still, the report singled out a late operation on Oct. 16 in Ghazni province in which a joint Afghan-international military force opened fire when entering house, killing an elderly couple, their 35-year-old son and a 10-year-old granddaughter.
"The conduct of pro-government forces during night raids and searches continues to be of concern, particularly regarding excessive use of force resulting in death and injury to civilians," the U.N. said. "Concerns have ranged from allegations of ill-treatment, aggressive behavior and cultural insensitivity, particularly toward women."
Ghazni, a volatile province southwest of Kabul, was the site of new allegations that civilians were mistakenly targeted on Thursday.
NATO insisted the four people killed were insurgents, but villagers claimed they were civilians — a father, two sons and a neighbor.
About 500 angry demonstrators chanted slogans against the United States and the Afghan government as they carried wooden coffins holding the bodies to the provincial capital of the same name.
"They had no weapons, no grenades, not even one single bullet was found in their home," Abdul Samad, the victims' relative, told Associated Press Television News. "All those killed were innocent people ... We are asking government officials to think about us all the time and not only today. If there is any matter of concern, they should discuss it with our elders."