Reporting from Surkhrod, Afghanistan — The father's eyes reddened with tears as he hefted an English textbook that had belonged to his ninth-grade son, Habibuddin. The boy, along with eight other people, was shot dead this month when American special-operations forces swooped down on the family's remote mud-brick compound in the dead of night.
"There were no Talibs here — none," Rafiuddin Kushkaki, the owner of the sun-yellowed wheat fields ringing the rural compound, declared in a defiant voice that trailed off into a sob. "Someone tricked the Americans. They made a mistake."
U.S. military officials, however, expressed certainty that those who died in the early hours of May 14 were insurgents, including a Taliban commander they say was painstakingly tracked to this pastoral district in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province. They also assert that the nocturnal strike, and hundreds of others like it, had unquestionably saved many lives, both Afghan and Western.
As the seemingly irreconcilable narratives of a single deadly encounter point up, no tactic employed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan is so thoroughly obscured by the fog of war as night raids, which are now occurring at a quicker tempo than before in nearly nine years of conflict.
Many Afghans believe these strikes are most often based on faulty intelligence, and carry a heavy risk of accidental civilian deaths as villagers, in the confusion of sudden awakening and darkness, attempt to defend their homes against unexpected invasion.
Human rights groups also point to what they say is the difficulty of holding the military accountable in the aftermath of raids, even when there are civilian deaths involved. Afghan President Hamid Karzai told reporters after returning home from a trip to Washington this month that night raids, to which he has publicly demanded a halt, were among the most important topics he raised with President Obama.
The raids' planners, however, insist on the accuracy of their tracking methods and source-vetting, the degree of care taken to avoid harming innocents, the closeness of coordination with Afghan authorities and the life-and-death urgency of their mission.
In a rare interview, two senior officials of a U.S. special-operations task force that has carried out nearly 1,000 raids across Afghanistan over the last year, a majority of them at night, offered a detailed account of the contested incident in Surkhrod, including an unusual glimpse of means and methods used to hunt wanted Taliban commanders.
In four out of five raids, the officials said, no shots are fired. Fewer than 2% of the strikes, by their count, result in civilian casualties. U.S. officials acknowledge 29 civilian deaths during raids over the last year, but say some of those were caused by insurgents.
And the cost to the American forces that carry out the raids is not routinely disclosed: In one recent seven-week period, the officials said, nine elite troops died.
The issue of night raids is tightly bound with what U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, has made the centerpiece of his counterinsurgency doctrine: the prevention of Afghan civilian deaths.
In both military and policy circles, noncombatant deaths are widely acknowledged to inflame Afghan sentiment against foreign forces, thus serving as a powerful recruiting tool for the insurgency. And night raids, with their intensely personal intrusion into homes and lives, have become a particular lightning rod for public anger at what is seen as reckless behavior by Western troops.
"In Afghan culture, a man's home is more than just his residence," McChrystal wrote in a tactical directive on night raids issued in February, in which he ordered, among other things, that Afghan troops always accompany Americans. "It represents his family, and protecting it is closely intertwined with his honor. … This reaction is compounded when our forces invade his home at night, particularly when women are present."
Days after the raid in Surkhrod, the fear and outrage were still palpable — and the bloodstains and bullet holes still much in evidence.
Accounts by villagers, including Kushkaki, the head of the extended family of men, women and children living in the compound, suggested that gunfire had erupted without warning shortly after 1 a.m. Most of those inside, together with farmworkers on rope cots out in the courtyard, were fast asleep, they said.
"My brother ran out to see what was happening; he was killed right away," Kushkaki said. "My son ran out too and was shot as well. I carried him inside in my arms, but he bled to death, here on this carpet."
The American officials describe a much different scenario: the arriving troops, through Afghan interpreters, making repeated calls through bullhorns for those inside to come outside — a practice they say is always adhered to.