Night raids deal could test way forward in Afghanistan

The deal lets Washington and Kabul have their cake and eat it too -- will it work? Will it change the war?

In a best-case scenario, this week’s agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan could be the rare international accord that kills at least two birds with one stone.

If it doesn’t work as advertised, the deal could only prolong or even worsen longstanding tensions between Washington and Kabul.

The “memorandum of understanding” signed Sunday tackles one of the top, longstanding priorities of Afghan President Hamid Karzai – the nighttime special operations raids that have taken a heavy toll on insurgents and al Qaeda fighters, but which also have injured and killed Afghan civilians.

American officials hope it will give domestic political cover for Karzai’s fragile government and hand primary responsibility for some missions to Afghanistan’s homegrown forces. But at the same time, the Pentagon hopes it leaves the U.S. and its allies a free enough hand to operate as they see fit.  Walking this tightrope, and using it as a template for more such agreements, will be one of the signature challenges for the remainder of the war.

“This memorandum is a microcosm of where we want to get to across the country with the military-to-military relationship we have with the Afghans,” said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a top DoD spokesman. “This is all about transition.”

Kirby, speaking from Kabul, told reporters at the Pentagon by phone Monday that the new agreement mostly codified practices that had already been in effect. The Afghan government now owns these specific special operations — it identifies targets, plans the missions, and technically leads the way. But the agreement leaves many loopholes, and that tension – between the appearance and reality of Afghan power – could cause new tension in Afghanistan.

Under the memorandum, an Afghan “Operational Coordination Group” must give its blessing to “Afghan-led” special operations in which the U.S. acts in a “support role,” targeting terror suspects or requiring the search of a “house or private compound.”

Even this requirement is flexible, though: Kirby said the agreement permits Afghan and U.S. teams to conduct an urgent raid, if necessary, and then get approval within 48 hours afterward.

“I don’t want you to take from this that it’s something people are going to take advantage of,” he said. “They want — and we want — to support them in keeping this in support of Afghan law.”

Afghan commandoes have already taken over “the lead” in much of the special operations covered by the agreement, Kirby said. They have run more than 350 such operations since December. In 270 of them, “they got the man they were after.” Troops fired shots in 31 of the raids, he said. “This is a very capable force and they’ve done a very, very good job.”

But those statistics only address the operations as defined by the agreement, not all of Afghan, U.S. or international special operations across Afghanistan. The deal does not address American special mission units such as Navy SEALs or Army Rangers, and Kirby would not discuss them as part of DoD’s standing policy not to talk about special operations forces.

So the limitations of the night raids agreement were clear: American-led or unilateral spec ops missions apparently may continue, and the other members of the International Security Assistance Force – for example, the United Kingdom – were not party to the deal.

The next big developments could be the reactions in Kabul and Washington. If Afghans accept the night raids agreement despite the latitude it gives the U.S., it could become the template for more such agreements as the American presence winds down. Likewise with potential Obama administration skeptics in the U.S.

The perception of a foreign “veto” over American operations, however, has long proven incendiary with Republicans – it was an issue in this year’s GOP primary and the cause of a Senate hearing dustup between Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions. As negotiations took place before the night raids deal was announced, lawmakers made clear they were leery of the idea that foreign officials could stop American military operations.

Karzai, meanwhile, is anxious to quell grumblings about his legitimacy. Taliban insurgents reject his government as a U.S. puppet, one that accommodates the “invaders” or “occupiers,” and Sunday’s night raids deal could be interpreted as mere window dressing given the openings it continues to afford American special operations.

The true test may not come until or unless more Afghan civilians are killed in the night raids that Karzai detests. He could use his newfound power to squelch them altogether, but if Afghans were killed in a unilateral American raid, it would belie the limitations of the deal his government wrought with ISAF commander Gen. John Allen.

Another unanswered question Monday was how soon the Afghan government could set up the new institutions and procedures the agreement says must be in effect for it to oversee the night raids. Kirby referred questions about the timetable to the Afghan government.

So although the memorandum was signed Sunday, it wasn’t clear when the changes it portends would actually take effect.