Is US killing strategy in Afghanistan illegal? London Dispatch by Ray Moseley

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Two British analysts questioned on Tuesday the effectiveness of the American kill-or-capture strategy in Afghanistan, with one of them suggesting that some such operations may represent violations of international law.

“Targeted killings are based on intelligence. If it’s wrong, they’re probably illegal,” said Kate Clark, senior analyst with the Kabul-based Afghan Analysts Network. If troops carrying out such operations have not taken precautions to safeguard innocent civilians, she added, they won’t fall within the Geneva Conventions on rules of warfare.

Ms. Clark and Stephen Grey, a correspondent for Channel 4’s Dispatches program in Britain who has reported from Afghanistan for the last three years, spoke at a meeting of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

Both cited instances in which they said American Special Forces had killed someone other than the intended target and said the Americans had insisted, despite evidence to the contrary, that they got the right man.

Ms. Clark, a former BBC correspondent in Kabul, referred to an incident last September in which 10 Afghans were killed in a targeted strike against a convoy of people taking part in an election campaign. She said the Americans believed they were targeting Muhammad Amin, a Taliban commander, but instead had killed Zabet Amanullah, a former Taliban official who had switched sides in 2001 and was out campaigning for his nephew.

She spent more than three hours discussing the killing with Special Forces, she said, and concluded that the intelligence on which they acted “was probably criminally bad.” The precautions supposedly taken to protect civilians were “woefully inadequate.”

Ms. Clark said the Special Forces had been monitoring the phone number of Mr. Amanullah and believed his SIM card had been passed on to the Taliban commander, Mr. Amin. “They mixed up the two men,” she said.

“Ten civilians were killed and dozens of women and children widowed and orphaned. There was no movement from the Americans to find out what happened.”

She said if troops failed to learn from their mistakes, then the kill-or-capture operations were “problematic.”

“The intelligence was bad enough that I felt they were not operating in the same country I was,” she said.

She described Mr. Amanullah, who had been living openly in Kabul and had been tortured by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency after he left the Taliban, as just the sort of man needed to help with rebuilding the country.

She also spoke out against operations in which people are captured for purposes of information gathering, saying that in the last month three children and a number of civilians had been killed in capture operations.

“This is one of the most politically disastrous tactics for the military to use,” she said.

She added that early morning and night raids were “universally unpopular” among Afghan people and were “one of the main factors driving down the popularity of foreign forces.”

Mr. Grey is the author of Operation Snakebite, an account of the war in Helmand province in Afghanistan.

In 2007-08, he said, commanders decided too much emphasis had been placed on killing enemy forces and not enough on winning over civilians. That brought a temporary change in strategy, he added, but recently the emphasis had returned to “the darker side.”

“The kill-or-capture program is playing a central role in what is happening,” he said. “Manhunt is back with a vengeance (and) has become quite ruthless.”

Like Ms. Clark, he said night raids to kill enemy forces had alienated many in the Afghan population. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, virtually banned such operations by conventional forces but “ramped up elite forces” to carry them out, he said.

General McChrystal was fired by President Barack Obama and his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, has made a public issue of what his predecessor did in secret, he said. General Petraeus’ approach apparently was designed to appeal “to the audience at home” and to intimidate the enemy, he said.

The night raids are generally on target, he said, but there was a history of such operations going wrong and Afghan people retain a memory of that.

As of April, such raids succeeded in killing or capturing 1,500 leading Taliban figures, he said, with another 3,000 foot soldiers killed and 8,000 captured.

The effect of these operations, he added, was to make the Taliban more extreme and Special Forces soldiers think that is a good thing, on the theory that Taliban extremism will alienate the population.

But he said it is now hard to find competent people to run affairs in Afghan towns and villages because so many people had fled to Pakistan or elsewhere to escape the military raids.

“This program is having a significant effect, but with great risks and great costs,” he said. “I don’t know if it will succeed or fail.”

(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune and has worked extensively in the Middle East. He can be reached at [email protected])