KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered the Defense Ministry to take control of night raids, one of the most controversial tactics used by foreign troops fighting the Taliban, in a move likely to stoke tensions between Kabul and its Western backers.
NATO-led forces defended the night-time operations as “indispensable,” but also said they supported Karzai’s aim of making them Afghan-led and were working to achieve this.
Karzai, who has previously riled U.S. and NATO leaders with criticism of night raids, said in a statement from his office that Afghan troops should be carrying out the sensitive night raids themselves.
“President Hamid Karzai ordered the Defense Ministry to prevent foreign troops from uncoordinated and arbitrary operations and bring night raids under its control,” the statement said.
“The president stresses that special operations and night raids must be independently conducted by Afghan troops.”
Afghans say the raids, carried out in darkness on houses suspected of harboring insurgents or being used as a store for weapons, often lead to civilian casualties.
Foreign troops have defended them as key to gaining ground against insurgents, cutting down the leaders of a movement with more territory and influence than at any time since 2001.
“We know we would not have seen the gains and progress made to date without the conduct of targeted, intelligence-driven night operations,” a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement.
“ISAF fully supports President Karzai’s intent to have Afghan forces increasingly in the lead for operations...We are working together to move from always having Afghan force participation, as we do now, to operations being Afghan-led.”
Karzai said the operations alienate Afghans from their government through violence, and cause discontent. Last November he called for the U.S. military to end night raids.
His latest demands come at a time of high anti-Western sentiment in Afghanistan and days after deadly protests by thousands of people against a night raid by NATO troops in which four people, including two women, were killed.
Twelve people were killed during violent protests and clashes with police in usually peaceful northern Takhar province and more 80 were wounded.
Afghans, including Karzai, have condemned the raid and said the dead were four members of one family.
NATO said that four armed insurgents, two of them women and one a senior member of al Qaeda linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), were killed in the raid on May 18.
Despite the calls from Karzai for night raids to be banned, General David Petraeus, the commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan, has stepped up night raids since taking over running Afghan war last year.
Under a plan agreed by NATO leaders in Lisbon last year, foreign troops will begin handing over security responsibilities to Afghan troops from July with a plan to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Despite the presence of some 150,000 foreign troops, violence in Afghanistan last year reached its deadliest phase since the U.S.-led Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001, with record casualties on all sides of the conflict.
The Taliban this month announced the start of a long-awaited “spring offensive” vowing to carry out attacks, including suicide assaults, on foreign and Afghan troops and government officials.
Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison