Vice Adm. William McRaven, the man who commanded the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, on Tuesday defended the use of night raids by U.S. special operation forces in Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has argued that the stealth kill-or-capture missions carried out in the dead of night have left too many innocent civilians dead and undermines the public’s trust in NATO forces and the Afghan government. Karzai has threatened to prohibit American forces from conducting such raids.
But speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, McRaven—who has been tapped by President Obama to be the next head of the Special Operations Command—said that the operations are often misconstrued as violent.
Prompted by questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., McRaven suggested putting an end to American-led night raids would “be detrimental to the special-operations aspect of the fight in Afghanistan,” said McRaven, who was making his first public appearance since the successful bin Laden operation in May.
McRaven, who until recently headed the elite, terrorist-hunting Joint Special Operations Command, said over the last 12 months his task force had conducted approximately 1,700 night raids in Afghanistan.
“I think what is lost on a lot of folks is that approximately 84 (percent) to 86 percent of those missions we never fired a shot,” McRaven said.
With the U.S. military beginning its drawdown of 33,000 surge troops next month, U.S. commanders may have to become more reliant on counterterrorism tactics of hunting and killing terrorists through night raids and drone strikes as the U.S. troop presence diminishes. But on Tuesday, McRaven and Lt. Gen. John Allen, Obama’s nominee to the next top commander in Afghanistan, said that there are still enough troops in Afghanistan to carry out a counterinsurgency strategy focused on securing the population.
“There will continue to be a counterterrorism dimension to the overarching counterinsurgency campaign, and as time passes, as conditions in the battle space evolve, as we approach 2014 and as we define our long-term relationship with Afghanistan, we may well see that the development of [counterterrorism] will become even more important as time goes on,” Allen said.
The use of night raids by American forces has long been controversial in the decade-old war. Under Gen. Stanley McChrystal, special operations forces dialed back the use of night raids after criticism from Karzai and other Afghan leaders. But once Gen. David Petraeus assumed control of the International Security Assistance Force last year, night raids once again became a cornerstone of the American strategy.
In May, Karzai’s office again criticized the night raids and called for any nighttime operations to be carried out by Afghan troops after night raids in Khost and Takhar provinces left civilians dead.