Small Wars Journal

We Own the Night

Wed, 02/22/2012 - 8:03am

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This study examines the impact of night direct action missions (commonly known as ‘night raids’) on the broader counterinsurgency mission of the United States forces in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011.  In spite of the expanded use of this type of mission and their reported tactical successes, this study argues that they have not achieved their operational objective of degrading the Taliban insurgency.  And while this change in tactics has not been the only change in the U.S.-led campaign, there appears to be little to no gains in the strategic areas that would be relevant to these missions.  Ultimately, this study calls for more research in the utility of such operations in counter-insurgency warfare.


The raid was intended to damage the Taliban.  In April 2010, special operations forces from the United States and Afghanistan, proceeding in helicopters under the cover of night, were hunting Taliban leadership in the Surkh Rod district of Nangarhar province, just west of the Pakistani border.  They had targeted a specific location and conducted what appeared to be a successful operation.  Soon after the raid, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) issued a statement claiming that a Taliban sub-commander and several of his associates had been killed, and that another two insurgents had been captured.

However, the reaction of the local population was not so sanguine.  Indeed, it was hostile, vociferous and immediate.  Approximately 300 demonstrators took to the streets of the village, protesting the deaths of civilians in the raid and questioning the guilt of the individuals who had been abducted.  They chanted “death to Shairzai (the provincial governor), (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai and the Americans”.[1]  Villagers burned tires and blocked roads in protest.  There were additional reports of clashes with local police as protestors attempted to march to the provincial capital in Jalalabad.[2]

Such operations and their after-effects have been common in the Afghanistan campaign.  In fact, a second controversial raid in Nangarhar province had occurred within the same month.  A raid that was targeting a “Taliban facilitator” stormed the family compound of Safiya Sidiqi, a member of the Afghan national parliament.  A relative was killed by the coalition forces who claimed that the individual was approaching the forces with a weapon – a claim the family disputes.  Shah Fasail Sidiqi, a brother of the Afghan legislator, said “This is a shame for America. . . They are worse than the Taliban.”[3]

And so we are left with this question: do these night raids do more harm than good?  The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) defines night raids as “any offensive operation involving entry into a compound, residence, building or structure that occurs in the period between nautical twilight and nautical dawn.”[4]  They are intended to advance the security goals within a counter-insurgency campaign.  Indeed, while many scholars recognize the long-term value of economic, political and social development in defeating an insurgency, none of these advances can be sustained without the maintenance of security.  For instance, new schools are of little use if families are concerned about the safety of their children getting to the school.  Seth Jones notes this point when he states, “The capability of the government security forces to defeat insurgents and establish law and order is paramount to the success of any counter-insurgency.”[5]

Statements by ISAF leaders during this time period indicated that they saw these operations as important to advancing security objectives.  For instance, in a March 5, 2010 press release “ISAF Guidance on Night Raids in Afghanistan” General Stanley McChrystal noted, “We know from experience that operations conducted at night are an essential component of our campaign delivering often decisive effects in disrupting and defeating some of the most dangerous insurgent groups.”[6]  And this disposition is carried through 2011 with the current ISAF Eastern Region Commander, General Daniel Allyn, who noted that such operations were “an invaluable tool against Taliban insurgents.”[7]  In fact, this belief is widely shared with some U.S. generals indicating that without night raids, “the United States may as well go home.”[8]

But identifying and separating the insurgents from the population requires more than just brute military power.  David Galula, a well-known student of counterinsurgency (COIN), noted that defeating an insurgency is 80 percent political – and 20 percent military.[9]  The question in this case is ‘is this the right kind of military activity?’  For instance, the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual specifies that being able to distinguish between insurgents and civilians is the key to victory - something that is frequently at issue in the aftermath of such raids.  Hence, even if these operations are successful at the tactical level, do they have a negative effect on the larger issue of the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan?

            Ultimately, this study makes a tentative conclusion that such raids are not having the intended effect.  In spite of a substantive increase in these types of activities since 2009, their primary objective of degrading the insurgent military and political organization remains largely unfulfilled.  Their strategic impact – that is, their role as one factor in establishing a pro-government sense of security among the Afghan population – is less clear.  And in that may lay a path for future research.


The Logic of Night Raids . . .

Incidents like the ones mentioned above were not new.  Indeed, in response to the continued protest from local Afghan populations, as well as government leaders such as President Karzai, the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), General Stanley McChrystal instituted reforms to the night raid process.  In the March 5, 2010 press release mentioned above, he issued new tactical guidance and intent for the conduct of night raids by coalition forces.  In that directive, the General noted that, “We are in a war of perceptions.”  He also noted, “. . . ultimately, how the Afghan people judge our conduct and perceive our intentions will be decisive factors in their decision to support their nation’s struggle against the insurgency.”[10]  However, the new guidance primarily dealt with the coordination and conduct of such operations.  It did not specifically circumscribe the actual operations, themselves. 

The increased use of these “kill/capture” missions reflects a culmination of technological advances that make them far more effective than ever before.  Western military and intelligence organizations have been able to apply advanced computer technology and a wide variety of national technical means to track and monitor potential targets.  For instance, the U.S. military’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for long-term surveillance is sometimes referred to as “the persistent stare” or “the unblinking eye”.  Also, advances in night vision technology have increased the range of complex activities that U.S. military forces can conduct during hours of darkness.

This enhanced ability to operate at night offers benefits that improve the likelihood of success, as well as minimizing the risk to the forces involved.  Like most people, the targeted individual(s) of these operations are usually asleep at night.  That decreased mobility increases the likelihood that they will still be at the target location when the raiding forces arrive.  Additionally, individuals that are asleep are much less likely to resist or take other defensive measures.  Hence, the number of friendly casualties is expected to be less than if a similar raid was conducted during daylight hours.

The military strategy that governs the conduct of these night operations is frequently listed as “F3EA”.  This stands for “Find”, “Fix”, “Finish”, “Exploit”, and “Analyze”.   The Find-Fix-Finish portion covers the traditional conception of the preparation and execution of the raid.  A target is identified (‘Find’), tracked to a particular location (‘Fix’), and then killed or captured in a direct action mission (‘Finish’).[11]

The ‘Exploit’ and ‘Analyze’ components have taken on a greater value in recent years. The expectation is that each operation provides additional intelligence information which can be used in subsequent operations.[12]  In addition to the targeted individual, the raiding party will confiscate a variety of items from the location.  For instance, in the raid that targeted Osama Bin Laden in 2011, it was reported that the raiding force took not only Bin Laden’s body, but also more than a hundred thumb drives, DVDs and associated computer components.[13]  Hence, the operations are not only designed to destroy/disrupt the insurgent organization, they are also utilized as intelligence gathering exercises.

While this type of operation has been primarily conducted by special operations forces for some time, conventional military forces have also utilized this methodology in limited cases.  For instance, U.S. military forces in Iraq applied this process during Operation PHANTOM STRIKE in 2007.[14]  That said, this paper makes the assumption that rough estimates of night raids can be gleaned from accounts that discuss the number of special operations raids that were conducted over a given period.

             These types of operations are not completely unprecedented in history, either.  Indeed, some authors have drawn rough parallels to the PHOENIX program that was implemented during the Vietnam War.  George Wilson sounded one of the initial cautionary notes on this parallel in late-2003. Indeed, Wilson notes how CIA Director William Colby in 1971 stated that is was not possible to be completely certain in differentiating enemy insurgents from neutrals (or even friendly) personnel in such operations. [15]   However, while the overall objective of degrading the structure and effectiveness of an enemy insurgent organization is similar, the methods and tactics have substantial differences.  At the very least, the attempt to detain and interrogate insurgent leadership for intelligence purposes has much greater prominence in these contemporary operations.

The actual conduct of such missions, as well as additional measurements of their effectiveness, has historically been shrouded in secrecy.  However, the limited coverage by the open press is now being augmented with expose`s from investigative journalists.  For instance, Mark Urban of the BBC examined the role of U.S. and British special operations forces in the war in Iraq in his book Task Force Black.[16]  Dana Priest and William Arkin from the Washington Post also examine this type of operation, though in the larger context of America’s shifting national security strategy in the wake of September 11th.[17]  


. . . and Counterinsurgency Warfare

            Insurgency warfare – and the need to counter it – is not new.  While many scholars discuss insurgency as a relatively new phenomenon, they are mostly highlighting the infusion of larger political objectives and revolutionary aspirations with guerrilla or asymmetric tactics.  Indeed, Herodotus writes of the Persian King Darius struggling unsuccessfully in 512 BCE against Scythian tribes who were employing scorched earth and guerrilla tactics.  Robert Asprey’s comprehensive survey of the use of guerrilla tactics documents their prevalence through the historical record.[18]  The story of this mode of conflict is continuity, not change.

            Another perennial is the question of how to counter such tactics.  Since the nature of this type of conflict involves such actions as ambushes, concealed movements, and dispersal of forces, the presumption is that military power alone cannot defeat an insurgent organization.  The insurgent hides amongst the population.  Mao Tse Tung, a very successful practitioner of insurgency warfare, noted that “the guerrilla must swim in the people as the fish swims in the sea”.[19]   Indeed, many scholars view the population itself as more important than the insurgency when attempting to counter such a movement.[20]  Colonel James Helis of the U.S. Army War College notes this common assumption when he states, “winning the campaign means the government has earned the support of the people. . . the people have chosen the government over the insurgents.”[21]

            Ultimately, the counterinsurgent faces a decision about what mix of “hard” and “soft” measures to apply to the situation.  “Hard” measures essentially mean the use of military forces to destroy the insurgent organization and its associated support systems amongst the population.  “Soft” measures (sometimes referred to as ‘Non-Kinetic’ in the current discussions) tend to center on the use of political and social reforms, as well as the use of development aid to prompt the population to cease its support or acceptance of the insurgency in their midst.  Some scholars, such as Gil Merom, believe that western democracies are not well-suited to such conflicts since they cannot tolerate either extreme.  He notes that the domestic population of the counterinsurgent lacks the patience to support a long-term political effort with continued (though limited) losses.  However, that same population will also not support more draconian measures against the target population as a way of ‘burning out’ the insurgency.[22]

The issue of the night raids falls squarely into this larger debate.  They most certainly fall into the “hard” category – sometimes getting elements of the population by mistake.   According to two senior U.S. commanders, the U.S. special operations forces that conduct the bulk of these operations are able to target the correct location or individual only about 50 percent of the time.[23]  This is how they can support a larger counterinsurgency effort - “[special forces] are not designed for a touchy-feely counterinsurgency.”[24]  However, are there efforts, not matter how skilled, ultimately counter-productive?  As General McChrystal noted, “it would be a tragic irony if operations we conduct to protect the population by ridding villages of insurgents are distorted to convince Afghans that we are unfeeling intruders.”[25]

These missions appear to have substantial negative impact on host population perceptions and the Taliban has utilized this in their propaganda.  Beyond the general concern about accidental killings and detentions on non-combatants, these operations run afoul of Pashtu cultural norms.  Pashtunwali, the tribal code of the Pashtun community, places a heavy emphasis on honorable and hospitable conduct (as defined by the community).  Entering the home uninvited at night is practically casus belli.  As one Afghan noted, “In our custom, if a strange man enters your house, you are allowed to kill him, he has come to either to rob or to dishonor you.”[26]  Further, coming to the aid of a neighbor whose home is being raided would be expected of male Pashtuns under this code.  However, the motivations of these neighbors could easily be misconstrued by special operations forces engaged in these night operations.  It is plausible – and certainly the Taliban propaganda campaign would stress this – that a large proportion of the "insurgents" killed in these actions were simply neighbors who had come out of their homes with guns to aid their neighbor.[27]

Researching the Impact of Night Raids

The Wikileaks revelations notwithstanding, this is still a difficult topic for research.

There are some inherent difficulties with the collection of data in this subject area.  First, the night raids and their effects are occurring in an active conflict area.  Comprehensive reporting in this area is inherently difficult due to the security concerns.  The Afghanistan Index produced by Ian Livingston and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute provides some of the best data reporting on security and reconstruction issues in post-2001 Afghanistan.  Still, much of the coverage is incomplete and the scope of the coverage is somewhat limited. 

The issue of completeness leads to a second information problem: the secret nature of these operations.  The overwhelming majority of these night raid operations are being conducted by elements of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), including the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).  This organization is reported to comprise some of the most elite combat units in the U.S. military.  However, the organization has worked diligently to remain out of public view.[28]  Given that they are the organization conducting most of these night raid missions in Afghanistan, chronicling the details of their activities is quite difficult.  However, media accounts and recent books provide enough insight to assess rough trends in the pace of this organization’s operations in Afghanistan.

Night raids are evaluated on three levels for this study.  The first relates to the tactical effectiveness of such operations.  By ‘tactical’, I am referring to the individual night raids and whether they accomplished their objective for the specific operation that was being executed.  It would be expected that the increase in the number of such operations would correlate positively with the number of insurgents killed or captured by organizations engaged in these activities.

The next question addresses the impact of these operations on their stated purpose: Are these operations degrading the insurgent networks that are opposing western and Afghan government forces in their broader counterinsurgency missions?  Beyond media reports that discuss the growth or decline of insurgent forces, the study will utilize reporting data from the Brookings Institute’s Afghanistan Index.  Specifically, the study would expect to see a negative correlation between the increase of night operations by United States forces and the number of insurgent attacks.  While an indirect indicator of the size of the insurgent forces, it seems logical that the number of attacks should decrease as the number of raids increases.

The last hypothesis relates to the most important question – strategic effectiveness.  If such operations are not actually helping to advance the policy objectives of the United States in Afghanistan, then why engage in them?  To measure progress on this front, the study will look to common indicators of popular support for the government.  At base, COIN is a contest for popular support.  If the counterinsurgency doctrine is ‘population-centric’ as has been frequently cited, it would be expected to see measures of public support for the government increasing over time if the effort is succeeding.

To be sure, these operations are but one element of the larger counterinsurgency strategy.  As a result, it is important to recognize the limits of this particular hypothesis. While it would be difficult to draw a direct cause-effect connection, a positive correlation would at least suggest that the raids were not counter-productive.


The first point to establish is that the pace of night raid operations by U.S. special forces has increased in recent years (2009 to 2011).  The evidence regarding this point is anecdotal but all indicators point to a substantial rise in their usage since 2008.  Under General McKiernan, the rate was approximately 100-125 a month in June 2008.  That number increased in 2009 under General McChrystal to approximately 500 per month.  And his relief, General David Petraeus, indicated that such missions had grown to as many as a 1,000 per month when he took command in June 2010.[29]   A recently released set of statistics from ISAF indicates that the total number of night raids that were conducted between May 2010 and February 2011 was 6,282.[30]  This would equate to approximately 600 per month.  While the specific numbers are shrouded in secrecy, there appears to be broad agreement that that pace of the night raid operations has increased substantially since 2008.

The continued controversy over the operations prompted General Petraeus to take additional steps beyond General McChrystal’s earlier restrictions regarding how the operations were conducted.  In December 2010, he modified the ISAF guidance on night raids in order to take greater care in the preparation and execution of these missions.  He also established a special command center in the office of the Afghan President to improve coordination.  However, the pace of operations remained well above 2008 levels as noted above.  Indeed, the capabilities for such operations showed sustained growth.   The November 30, 2011 edition of The Afghanistan Index indicates that the number of special operations strike teams grew from four to twenty between the years 2009 and 2011.[31]

Tactical Success

The evidence regarding the tactical success of these operations is fairly clear.  According to The Afghanistan Index, the number of “Insurgent Leaders Killed or Captured” for the year ending in early 2011 was approximately 1,500.  The Soros Foundation, in a report critical of the practice of night raids, indicates that this represents a five-fold increase in the last two years.  This same report indicates that with improved intelligence and host-country coordination, the success rates of these attacks has grown to approximately 80 percent.[32]  So, from a tactical perspective, they continue to kill or capture a substantial number of insurgent leadership at minimal cost in terms of casualties.

Another data point that is frequently cited by advocates of these missions is the number of operations that are conducted with no shots fired.  In the 6,282 raids that were noted between May 2010 and February 2011, 80 percent were conducted with no shots fired.  The concern over minimizing civilian casualties is viewed as one of the benefits of these raids over other security-related counterinsurgency operations.  As a result, this lack of weapons fire during the actual operations is seen as an additional indicator of tactical success.

Campaign-Level Impact

However, the question arises of whether the pace of attrition that is produced by these raids is being outstripped by the insurgent pace of recruitment.  It is reminiscent of the 2003 memorandum from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who asked, “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas . . . are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”[33]

Estimates of the size of the Taliban are problematic for at least two reasons.  First, as is common with most insurgencies, who qualifies as an insurgent is often subject to debate.  Irregular warfare forces often have a cast of quasi-facilitators and part-time participants in addition to their full-time members.  This phenomenon has been documented to some degree in the current Afghan conflict by works like David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla.[34]  A second barrier to tracking the size of the Taliban is that it is not actually a monolithic organization, in spite of the name.  Indeed, many groups are commonly included in the label ‘Taliban’ including tribal groups associated with Hekmatyar and Haqqani networks.  These groups cooperate at varying levels.  What unites them is the common purpose of resisting western military forces in their country and the Afghan government, not necessarily a common command structure.

It is also important to note the political implications of such an estimate.  Despite the definitional issues mentioned above, attempting to track the growth and decline of the movement is an obvious indicator of policy success – with substantial political implications.  To be sure, this area has some parallels with the U.S. policy of ‘body counts’ and estimations of the size of the Vietcong forces in the Vietnam War.  Indeed, given the history, it is not surprising that quantitative estimates of Taliban size and losses are not widely publicized.

Still, there appear to be internal attempts within the military to track this area.  The Afghanistan Index reports an estimate of Taliban forces growing from approximately 3,200 in 2004 to 30,000 by 2010.[35]  However, these estimates may also suffer from the political consequences of their findings.  In 2009, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force reported that it was believed that the insurgency included anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 full-time fighters.  At the end of 2010, that number was not changed – despite the fact that the total number of attacks against ISAF and Afghan government forces grew by more than 54% in that same time-frame.  Some have alleged that this was politically motivated.[36]  Certainly, reports of growth would have clearly undermined the purpose of the stepped-up military effort – including the increased use of night direct action missions.

The number of attacks conducted by insurgents against Afghan government and ISAF forces is a much clearer phenomenon to measure.  While certainly an indirect indicator regarding the size of the insurgency, increased manpower could clearly lead to increased capability – including the rate of attacks.  And indeed, the pace of attacks grew substantially over the period from 2008 to 2011.

Table 1.  Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan, 2008-2011[37]

Like many conflicts, there are seasonal variations in the fighting.  For instance, there is commonly a reduction in the number of insurgent attacks during the winter months.  As a result, it is more instructive to compare the rate of attacks in the same point of the year across different years.  As can be seen in table 1, the rate of attacks increased every year between 2008 and 2010, regardless of the particular time of year.  The year of 2011 began with the same trend, though the latest data point trended below the 2010 level.  Whether that is the beginning of a trend or an aberration is not clear. However, presuming the insurgency has not made quantum leaps in their operational efficiency – which there is no indication of – this would suggest that the number of insurgents involved in anti-government attacks has grown between 2008 and 2011.

To be sure, the expanded use of night raids is not the only variable at play.  However, given that the central rationale for these operations is to degrade the insurgent organization and its operational effectiveness, this calls into question whether these operations are having their intended effect.  At the campaign level, these operations do not appear to be facilitating the broader mission in the way that they were intended.

Strategic Effect

Perhaps, the most significant question that his study seeks to address – whether night direct action missions actually advance the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan – is also the most difficult to address.  Beyond the basic objective of reconstruction and stability with popular support for the government, there are a variety of tools that can advance this agenda.  Night raid operations are but one element in a larger repertoire of COIN.  The best that might be hoped for would be to correlate the growth of these missions with positive strategic developments in the relevant areas.

These missions are most relevant to the security element of counterinsurgency.  It would not be expected that night raids would have a substantial and direct effect on reconstruction indicators like the number of new schools constructed or the level of unemployment.  Where one would expect to see some impact is in the realm of popular perceptions of security and support for the government.  If the operational objective of reducing the threat of insurgent activities directed at pro-government populations is succeeding, it would be expected to see an increase in popular perceptions of safety.  It would also be expected that popular support for the government and its actions would improve.

Unfortunately, the evidence in this area is limited and contradictory.  For instance, in the poll conducted by ABC News and the BBC titled, “Afghanistan: Where Things Stand”, perceptions that things in Afghanistan were going ‘in the right direction’ climbed 30 points over 2009, but then declined 11 points to 59 percent in 2010.  The public approval of the Afghan government and U.S. forces in Afghanistan followed a similar pattern of growth and decline.  Interestingly, this same poll saw the Afghan public increasingly concerned about security from crime and violence, growing 9 percent between 2009 and 2010.  More disturbing for the counterinsurgency effort, this survey shows a growing trend that the U.S. forces are being held to blame.  Though a plurality in this poll still found the Taliban to be more culpable than the U.S., the difference had shrunk from over 30 percent to only 9 percent over the course of 2010.[38]

Another survey, this one by the Asia Foundation, found a similarly murky trend.  A non-profit nongovernmental organization that works for “the development of a peaceful, prosperous, just and open Asia-Pacific region”, this organization has conducted country-wide annual surveys of Afghanistan since 2004.  The most recent survey indicated a slight rise in the number of Afghans who believed the country was on the right track.  Their study indicated that the ‘right track’ numbers grew from 38 percent in June 2008 to 47 percent in June 2010.  However, Afghans who “feared for their safety” grew by 6 points to 54 percent over this time period.[39]

Certainly, a war zone is not the best place to conduct a public opinion survey.  Sampling methodology, questionnaire design and administration would certainly be affected by security conditions, as well as cross-cultural challenges.  The trends regarding support for the government are mixed with the overall rating away from either extreme.    However, the lack of sustained popular perceptions of security – and some initial indication that the United States is increasingly blamed for this growing insecurity – is a cause for concern going forward.

Alternative Explanations

The evidence in this study is not definitive, but it does suggest that the night raid operations are not having their intended effect.  The evidence suggests that there has been a substantial increase in the number of night raids since 2009, but that there has also been a substantial increase in the rate of insurgent attacks in that same period.  At the strategic level, popular indicators are mixed.  It does not appear that night raids have substantially altered the counterinsurgent situation for the better.

But why does the evidence not demonstrate a more adverse relationship than the flurry of media reports would suggest?  While there are certainly a host of possibilities – including the possibility that these operations are actually helping the strategic situation – two other possibilities are worth noting here.

First, there is a possible problem with the level of analysis.  This study has examined the number of night operations, the number of Taliban attacks and public attitudes at the national level.  However, Afghanistan is a very large country and the night operations have not been evenly distributed across the country.  Most of the activities related to the night raid operations have occurred in the southern and eastern portions of the country.  The nature of the relationship that is explored in this study might come into sharper relief if the study examined a smaller area that was directly affected by the insurgency and the night raid ‘treatment’.  For instance, in Helmand province where there has been a sustained COIN effort, it is reported that the average age of an insurgent leader has fallen from 35 to 23.[40]  Unfortunately, with a move to this lower level of analysis, the challenges of gathering evidence increase.  Perhaps as time goes on, the availability of such data will improve.

Second, it may be that the numbers are not the real story.  Counterinsurgency scholars have long focused on the role of propaganda and its effects on strategic communication.  Recently, this thread of research has specifically focused on ‘the battle of the narrative’.[41]  Clearly, the night raids have more than a few detractors among the Afghan population.  Some have discussed how insurgent forces could highlight how these operations are in conflict with the tribal code of Pashtunwali. The narrative of the Taliban focuses on the idea that the western forces are occupiers who do not respect Afghan culture.  In this respect, these night operations may help to reinforce a popular perception that is counter-productive to the COIN strategy.  As one western military commander noted, “we are getting our ass whupped in the information war.”[42]  Hence, a study which examined the propaganda impact may provide insights that a more empirical study would not.  After all, perception is a large part of politics, and as Clausewitz noted, ‘war is politics by other means’.[43]


Current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are counter-insurgencies – at least, according to U.S. military leadership.  This initial assessment is critical.  As the Prussian military scholar Carl von Clausewitz noted, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.”[44]

If that assessment is correct, then the question is what strategies and tactics are best suited to prevailing in such a conflict.  While it is not unanimous, most scholars of counterinsurgency warfare take the axiom that ‘the population is the center-of-gravity’ as a given.  Without popular support, the counterinsurgent cannot hope to defeat the insurgency because it will never effectively eliminate an opposition that hides among the population.

And yet, beyond developing popular support, the insurgent organization must be eliminated – or at least severely degraded – in order to develop security and maintain popular support for the government.  But how much force is appropriate and in what contexts?  The United States cannot, as General Petraeus once noted, “kill [its] way out of an insurgency.”[45]  Even, General McChrystal, the first proponent of expanded night raid operations, noted in his Senate confirmation hearings in 2009, “In counterinsurgency how (emphasis mine) you operate. . . often determines success or failure”[46]

There may be an element of “the law of the instrument” at play in this case.  Most fundamentally, military organizations will naturally gravitate towards military solutions.  In this way, counterinsurgency warfare is not always intuitive – particularly to junior personnel.  As one soldier in Afghanistan noted, “war is war and this is no war. . . I don’t know what this is.”[47]  More specifically, U.S. technological advances have made precision strike operations, such as drone strikes and night raids, more successful than ever before.  However, the question is whether these tactics are appropriate and effective in a counterinsurgency strategy?  They may have more relevance in counter-terrorism campaigns where these tactics have had several recent, high profile successes.

In the end, the U.S. military forces in Afghanistan may ‘own the night’, but that may not be the advantage that it is believed to be.  In spite of the increase of such operations and their increased effectiveness, the insurgency has not been diminished – and in fact, may even by be growing.  Further, there is little evidence that the broader counterinsurgency effort is gaining traction since the infusion of these operations.  If this relationship is borne out by further research, it would be an important lesson for modern conventional militaries as they combat irregular warfare opponents.  In the end, these conflicts may be more political than military. . . just as David Galula suggested 50 years ago.

1 “Afghans Protest Against NATO, Say 12 Civilians Killed,”RAWA News (14 May 2010).

[2] “Afghan Protests Over NATO Raid in Nangarhar Province”, British Broadcasting Service – Online (24 May 2010).

[3] Dion Nissenbaum, “Afghanistan War: U.S. Night Raids Spark Protest Over Civilian Deaths,” Christian Science Monitor (April 29, 2010), p. 3.

[4] ISAF Headquarters Press Release, “ISAF Issues Guidance on Night Raids in Afghanistan,” (5 March 2010).

[5] Seth Jones,  Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan (Washington, D.C.: RAND Corporation, 2008), p. 15.

[6] ISAF Headquarters Press Release, “ISAF Issues Guidance on Night Raids in Afghanistan,” (5 March 2010).

[7] Chris Carroll, “Night raids will continue to target Taliban,” Stripes Central (22 November 2011).

[8] Rod Nordland, “For a Long-Term Afghan-American Accord, Night Raids Are a Sticking Point,” The New York Times (4 December 2011), p. A14. 

[9] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (London: Praeger Security International, 2006), p. 63. 

[10] ISAF Headquarters Press Release, “ISAF Issues Guidance on Night Raids in Afghanistan,” (5 March 2010).

[11] The ‘Finish’ element could also be implemented via airstrike, but since that does not pertain to the central issue in this study, that option will not be addressed in this study.

[12] Eric Rosenbach and Aki Peritz, “The New Find-Fix-Finish Doctrine,” Joint Forces Quarterly 61, 2nd Quarter (2011), p. 100.

[13] “What They’re Looking For Inside Osama’s Thumb Drives” Wired Magazine (6 May 2011).

[14] Mario Loyola,  “Operation PHANTOM STRIKE: How the U.S. military is demolishing al Qaeda in Iraq,”  The Weekly Standard (3 September 2007), p. 1.

[15] George Wilson, “Beware a Phoenix Rising from Iraq’s Ashes,” National Journal 35, no. 51/52 (20 December 2003), p. 3831.

[16] Mark Urban, Task Force Black: The Explosive Story of the Secret Special Forces War in Iraq (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011).

[17] Dana Priest and William Arkin,  Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011).

[18] Robert Asprey, War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History (Lincoln, NE: IUniverse Publishers, 2002).

[19] Mao Tse Tung,  On Guerrilla Warfare (New York: CreateSpace Publishers, 2009), p. 45.

[20] Galula, p. 52. 

[21] Chris McGreal and Jon Boone, “US Launches New Afghan Counterinsurgency Strategy” The Guardian (24 September 2009), p. 1.

[22] Gil Merom, Why Democracies Lose Small Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 46.

[23] Dana Priest and William Arkin,  “Top Secret America: A Look at the Military’s Joint Special Operations Command,”  Washington Post (2 September 2011), p. A1.

[24] Miles Amore, “Afghan Family Killed as Special Forces Defy Night Raid Ban,” The Sunday Times (14 March 2010), p. 1.

[25] ISAF Headquarters Press Release, “ISAF Issues Guidance on Night Raids in Afghanistan,” (5 March 2010).

[26] Nordland, “For a Long-Term Afghan-American Accord, Night Raids Are a Sticking Point,” p. A14.

[27] Nissenbaum, “Afghanistan War: U.S. Night Raids Spark Protest Over Civilian Deaths,” p. 3.

[28] Dana Priest and William Arkin, “Top Secret America: A Look at the Military’s Joint Special Operations Command,” p. A1.

[29] Gareth Porter, “New Light Shed on US’s Night Raids,” Asia Times (17 September 2010).

[30] Gareth Porter, “ISAF Data Show Night Raids Killed over 1,500 Afghan Civilians,” Inter Press Service (2 November 2011).

[31] Ian Livingston and Michael O’Hanlon, The Afghanistan Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction and Security in Post-9/11 Afghanistan (Washington: The Brookings Institute, 2011), p. 10.

[32] The Cost of Kill/Capture: The Impact of the Night Raid Surge on Afghan Civilians (Kabul, Afghanistan: Open Society Foundation’s Regional Policy Initiative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2011), p. 9.

[33] Donald Rumsfeld, Memorandum on the Global War on Terrorism dated 16 October 2003.

[34] David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla (London: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[35] Livingston and O’Hanlon, The Afghanistan Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction and Security in Post-9/11 Afghanistan p. 17.

[36] Gareth Porter, “Intelligence Community Failed to Register Taliban Growth,” Inter Press Service (14 February 2011), p. 1.

[37] Livingston and O’Hanlon, The Afghanistan Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction and Security in Post-9/11 Afghanistan, p. 10.

[38] ABC News/BBC/ARD Poll, Afghanistan: Where Things Stand, Released 6 December 2010.

[39] Asia Foundation, Afghanistan in 2010: A Survey of the Afghan People,

[40] Jim Michaels, “Time Working Against Taliban” USA Today (26 may 2011), p. A1.

[41] Mark Neate, The Battle of the Narrative (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2010).

[42] Max Boot, Fred Kagan and Kimberly Kagan,  “Yes We Can,”The Weekly Standard (Vol. 14, Issue 26), p. 5.

[43] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (New York: Penguin Classics, 1982), p. 109.

[44] Willis Regier, “The Essence of War: Clausewitz as Educator,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 3 August 2009, p. 20.

[45] Eric Rosenbach and Aki Peritz,  “The New Find-Fix-Finish Doctrine,” p. 100.

[46] James, Frank, “Won’t Measure Afghan Success By ‘Enemy Killed’: McChrystal,” National Public Radio (2 June 2009).

[47] A Brief History Blog.



Categories: night raids - COIN - Afghanistan

About the Author(s)

Dr. Jonathan Smith is an Associate Professor of Politics and serves as the Director of Intelligence and National Security Studies at Coastal Carolina University.  He teaches course on intelligence analysis, national security decision making, and U.S. security policy.  Dr. Smith also serves as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.  In his 23-year career, he has mobilized in support of Operations JOINT ENDEAVOR, IRAQI FREEDOM, and ENDURING FREEDOM.  His last assignment was as Commanding Officer of NR Joint Intelligence Operations Center 0174 based at the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, Florida. 


JEC alludes to one of the most important points about our fascination with night raids and all things spec ops related. We are "doubling down" on these things because they are seen as working. Dr. Smith demonstrates that they don't work, at least they don't seem to affect the overall course of the conflict. So we are in danger of increasingly relying on something that doesn't really work that well because we've convinced ourselves that it does. That is very dangerous.

A second important point is one of opportunity costs. Those raids require lots of air support, highly trained people to pull them off and copious intel support, all for something that doesn't appear to work so well. That raises the question of whether those resources could have been put to better use elsewhere, somewhere that may have actually had an effect on the course of the conflict. In fact a strong case can be made that night raids have been helping the enemy more than us. By Dr. Smith's measures they have had no effect, and the Afghans hate them and have from their start, so they may have resulted in a net loss.


Fri, 02/24/2012 - 6:00am

This is a great rundown. I enjoyed this read from start to finish -- it addresses directly, to me, one of the most important debates (that is not going on) with regard to our current and post-2014 strategy in Afghanistan, not to mention larger global posture (whereas the DoD is cutting almost everywhere, especially in big Army, the Pentagon is doubling down on the units you describe here).

That said, a few points:

(1) "As one Afghan noted, 'In our custom, if a strange man enters your house, you are allowed to kill him, he has come to either to rob or to dishonor you.'"

--While I think there is some relevance here, this needs to be explored more thorougly (likely by cultural anthropologists). For instance, as most SWJ readers would probably agree, it is also custom in the U.S., if a strange man enters your house in the middle of night, to kill him. He has also likely come to rob or dishonor you.

Further, I think we would learn quite a bit from comparative analysis of night raids in Iraq and Afghanistan. While I tend to agree with most of your Afghan-based points, I would argue that night raids in Iraq were overwhelmingly successful in degrading both the Shiite insurgency and Al Qaeda in Iraq. And there also was not the same 'cultural' outrage that we see in Afghanistan. Definitely needs more attention.

(2) "Specifically, the study would expect to see a negative correlation between the increase of night operations by United States forces and the number of insurgent attacks. While an indirect indicator of the size of the insurgent forces, it seems logical that the number of attacks should decrease as the number of raids increases."

--Like you note, this sort of work is very difficult to measure. Another complicating factor is that isn't addressed in this article is the use of night raids for shaping operations in advance of conventional forces. It is tough to measure if a conventional operation, like Moshtarak, was "easier" because of shaping operations. I'm sure ORSA-types have all sorts of ideas on how you might be able to capture this, 10% of which would be valuable.

(3) Final point: As I have argued before, I think there is a strong bureaucratic political element to the rapid increase in night raids that cannot be discounted. That fact of the matter is that intel analysts love producing target packages and love it even more when someone picks up that package and acts on it. SOF responds very well to analysts; conventional, more COIN-oriented operators less so (though often for good reason). More on that here:…

All in all, a great article. This is a whole new wing of post-9/11 operations and how it fits (or fails to fit) within COIN is one of the more important discussions as we press forward with the 2014 withdrawal and likely heavy reliance on these sorts of ops. Many thanks for this.