It is so shameful that some Afghans have cited the searches as the reason for their joining the growing ranks of the internally displaced. As one former resident of Khas Uruzgan recounted to local researchers, "I went to Spin Boldak to save my dignity. We don't want to see our wives and daughters without their shawls, searched in front of us. We were humiliated."
Further, these missions sometimes end in arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions at Bagram Airfield, where the moral, legal, and political conundrums thrown up by the prison there perhaps equal those of Guantánamo Bay, but with much less public attention. And, in the past, the missions have even caused problems for regional International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commanders whose efforts to build trust with locals were complicated by controversial special forces operations about which they knew nothing in advance.
This should provide those advocating a renewed narrow focus on the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan with food for thought. It may seem a cheaper and cleaner alternative to the counterinsurgency approach the Pentagon advocates. But it would come at a high cost for the local population and for the West's reputation, relying on the most resented soldiers, compromising the United States' goal of winning hearts and minds.
It is significant that the man now charged with turning things around in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was previously the head of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and oversaw these types of direct-action operations by special forces. By some accounts, McChrystal has adopted the Army's broader counterinsurgency mission with all the zeal of a convert. Serious questions remain about whether even a fully resourced counterinsurgency approach will work in Afghanistan, but a key measure of its success will be one that McChrystal has himself established: the protection of civilians.
This goal has led McChrystal to place, very publicly, limits on the use of air power by coalition forces. The high civilian death toll in the recent airstrike on a hijacked oil tanker in Kunduz province demonstrated both the importance of this new injunction and the difficulty of implementing it.
An equal measure of McChrystal's commitment to protect Afghans will be how he uses the special operations forces he once led and whose activities remain shrouded in secrecy. In a recent speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the ISAF commander emphasized yet again that Afghans need protecting: from the Taliban and other insurgents who kill, maim, exploit, and extort, as well as from the warlords whose predatory instincts have not been dulled by the fact that some are today ministers in the national government.
But as McChrystal made clear, if the West is to win in Afghanistan, sometimes the allied forces will "need to protect [Afghans] from our own actions" as well.