Having concluded a deal with Hamid Karzai that will involve transferring more than 3,000 detainees to Afghan custody, American negotiators are now trying to clinch a deal that would allow the continuation of “night raids”—the melodramatic label given to most Special Operations missions which occur at night when fewer civilians are likely to be in harm’s way and the targets are less likely to be on their guard and at more of a disadvantage because of America’s night-vision systems. The Wall Street Journal claims that the U.S. side is offering to allow Afghan judges to approve any future operations; I don’t know if this is true but it would make sense because similar authority was given to Iraqi judges.
The broader point is that it’s very difficult to get the Afghan government to approve what American leaders regard as their most effective terrorist-fighting tool—the ability of Special Operations Forces such as the SEALs, Rangers, and Delta Force to swoop down on “high-value targets” at night. And if it’s difficult today, when the U.S. has 90,000 troops in Afghanistan buttressing the authority of its government, imagine how difficult it will be after 2014 or even sooner when the U.S. presence will decline dramatically.
Advocates of a steep drawdown, such as Vice President Biden, seem to imagine that even if we pull out most combat troops, our Special Operators will still have full freedom to target any concentrations of terrorists they might find. But in fact no Afghan government is likely to extend such authority, and Kabul may very well decide to kick out the U.S. military altogether if our presence becomes so minuscule that it enflames nationalist resentment stoked by the Taliban without providing an effective check on the insurgency’s advance.
Afghan leaders are most concerned about stopping the Taliban, which threaten their rule, while U.S. leaders are most concerned about Al Qaeda that threatens the American homeland. In the past decade we have essentially made a de facto compact—the Afghans will permit us to chase Al Qaeda if we support their government. If we stop effectively supporting their government, the deal is off and the U.S. will have about as much freedom to operate as it currently does in Iraq—which is to say none at all.