US Special Forces night-time “commando raids” and “targeted airstrikes” have been a persistent cause of large numbers of civilian casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

While most attention recently has been focused on Afghanistan, there was news this week that while Obama’s plan calls for the withdrawal of “all combat troops,” US Special Forces will not be withdrawn.

U.S. Navy Adm. Eric Olson, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, that his forces would stay active in Iraq.

“The special operations forces are not experiencing a drawdown in Iraq,” he said. “Supporting them is a continuing mission of the rest of the force.”

… Olson said the 4,500 Special Forces personnel, however, would stay behind.

In Afghanistan, the recent reports about the coverup of the murder of three women and two men by Special Forces in February  has been followed quickly by the latest McChrystal spin that he is now “taking control” of Special Forces operating in Afghanistan.

But the story of command of those Special Forces is not so simple. Last year Gareth Porter,  pointing out that control of these forces seemed to be a “hot potato” given their responsibility for civilian casualties, traced the command of the Special Forces from 2004 on:

The U.S. command in Afghanistan has not always been so tolerant of killing of innocent civilians by Special Operations forces commando raids and airstrikes as it is now. The commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, Gen. David Barno, imposed day-to-day control over Special Forces raids and ended targeted airstrikes altogether.

In 2005, Gen. Karl Eikenberry replaced Barno and reinstituted the use of airstrikes. Eikenberry is now the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, appointed by Pres. Obama.

During both General’s command, US Special Forces were under the “day-to-day” command of these generals.

In 2006, when US forces came under NATO control, command of the special forces reverted JSOC at Centcom, under Gen. Petraeus.

From September 2003 until June 2008, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) Commander.

In March 2009, Petraeus placed the Special Forces under “tactical control” of then Afghan commander David McKiernan:

An order issued Tuesday at the direction of CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus gives McKiernan authority over all operations by Special Operations units stationed in the country, as Col. Gregory Julian, McKiernan’s spokesperson, confirmed in an e-mail to IPS. The order, which has not been made public, modifies previous command arrangements which had excluded U.S. Special Operations forces from McKiernan’s command authority.

Although the order follows a period of rising Afghan protests against Special Operations raids, there is no indication that Petraeus intends for the change in command arrangements to bring about any fundamental change in such raids.

Nevertheless, it appears that those raids have become a political hot potato, which Petraeus prefers to be in McKiernan’s hands rather than his own, particularly as Afghanistan heads into a politically charged period leading up to a presidential election in August.

When Gen. Stanley McChrystal replaced McKiernan we were told that McChrystal was bringing a new approach to Afghanistan, one that would be concerned with protecting civilians as part of his COIN strategy. This was always surprising to some of us given McChrystal’s command of JSOC during a period when they were known for extensive abuses and in particular his command of the unit running Camp Nama which was so far outside the pale that even other military intelligence units withdrew from cooperation with them.

After all, McChrystal’s reputation was not so promising:

McChrystal was known as Rumsfeld’s man and a favourite of Dick Cheney, Bush’s vice-president. Early in 2003 he had conducted nationally televised Pentagon press briefings on US operations in Iraq. One of his units, Task Force 6-26, became well known for its interrogation methods, notably at Camp Nama, where it was accused of abusing detainees. After the scandal over prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, 34 members of the taskforce were disciplined. In 2008 the affair threatened to stall his appointment as director of the joint staff, but after a private meeting in the Senate his promotion was confirmed.

We were told though that “McChrystal had recanted his earlier views” and since his appointment, we’ve heard over and over again about McChrystal’s directives to minimize civilian casualties (directives which seem to always follow yet another incident where civilians are killed – and the killings are covered up by McChrystal’s team until the real story comes out.)

So has Rumsfeld and Cheney’s man really changed? And have these horrific incidents been outside his control?

Recently, we’ve heard a lot about McChrystal’s directives to minimize civilian casualties and at least from available reports, the use of air strikes seems to have been more controlled  though another one killed “four civilians including two women and a child” just last week.  But for all his public pronouncements, the use of night raids – the other primary cause of civilian casualties – has increased under McChrystal, as Gareth Porter reported last week,

Since he took over as top commander in Afghanistan, McChrystal has not only refused to curb those raids but has increased them dramatically…

After becoming commander of NATO and U.S. forces last May, he approved a more than fourfold increase in those operations, from 20 in May to 90 in November, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times Dec. 16. One of McChrystal’s spokesmen, Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, acknowledged to IPS that the level of night raids during that period has reflected McChrystal’s guidance…

As a result of McChrystal’s decisions, civilian deaths from night raids have spiked, even as those from air strikes were being reduced. According to United Nations and Afghan government estimates, night raids caused more than half of the nearly 600 civilian deaths attributable to coalition forces in 2009…

In late January, a new directive was announced to the press addressing the night raids issue… Another night raid on Feb. 12, soon after the new directive had been issued, showed clearly that the directive had not changed anything.

This of course is the horrific night raid which we are now learning was covered up by SOF and McChrystal’s PR machine.

The reports of that raid led me to wonder what had happened to that “hot potato” of tactical control of SOC that Petreaus passed to McKiernan. Did it somehow vanish when McChrystal took over. After all, we’ve just recently heard a lot of talk about how McChrystal was finally getting control of all – or almost all – US forces in Afghanistan including SOC. Look for example at Spencer Ackerman’s report on this.  He first notes that:

Over the past several months, though, it appeared as if JSOC was still doing its own thing, as prominent incidents of civilian casualties implicating special forces accumulated, contradicting McChrystal’s most important strategic directives.

And then goes on to point to:

The New York Times reports today that McChrystal has finally consolidated control of Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.

So I checked with Gareth Porter who confirmed, via email that in fact, McChrystal has always had tactical control of these very forces: (via email)

The 2009 directive gave McKiernan “tactical control”, meaning control over the manner in which they operate where they are operating.  The most more recent shift is to “operational control”, which means the commander can move the units wherever he wants them within the theater.  The significance of this in regard to night raids is that McChrystal already had the control he needed to tell them how many there could be and how they should be run when he took over.  Now he can move them wherever he likes.

So General McChrystal, it looks like that hot potato was in your hands all along.