KABUL, Afghanistan - A surge in the number of controversial NATO night raids in Afghanistan has caused a "tremendous backlash" among Afghans and is endangering civilian lives, a new study said Sept. 19.
The U.S.-led coalition force carries out raids under cover of dark to pick off insurgents alongside a counter-insurgency campaign aimed at coaxing the population away from supporting the Taliban.
But any gains made by night raids come "at a high cost," said the study by billionaire philanthropist George Soros's Open Society Foundations and Afghan non-governmental organization The Liaison Office.
"Touted gains have come at a high cost. The escalation in raids has taken the battlefield more directly into Afghan homes, sparking tremendous backlash among the Afghan population," the 38-page report said.
A lack of transparency and accountability had also "reinforced Afghan perceptions that international military use night raids to kill, harass and intimidate civilians with impunity," it said.
The report said the number of night raids had increased fivefold between February 2009 and December 2010, with an average of 19 raids per night across the country as foreign combat troops aim to leave by the end of 2014.
A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) defended the raids as a tactical success but said the report's findings would be studied and recommendations implemented "that may improve the effectiveness of our operations in Afghanistan."
"Night operations are an effective method of maintaining the pressure on the enemy while minimizing risk to innocent civilians," said ISAF spokesman Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has led public criticism of the raids for causing civilian casualties, a thorny issue in the 10-year war that began when U.S.-led troops brought down the Taliban regime in 2001, sparking the insurgency.
But "Eighty-five percent of night operations are conducted without a shot being fired and account for less than one percent of civilian casualties", Cummings added.
The report acknowledged that NATO directives and operational guidance had significantly reduced civilian casualties, but said that "many of these improvements have been undermined or overshadowed by the surge in night raids."
"In many cases, non-combatants appear to be subjected to night raids due to their proximity to insurgent activities, or incidental information about insurgent groups, rather than due to their actual conduct or status," it added.
There are about 140,000 foreign, mainly American troops, serving in Afghanistan to help Karzai's Western-backed government defeat the Taliban.