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Flash, bang, but Afghan night raid comes up empty

Matt Robinson reports for Reuters from Ateh Khaneh, Afghanistan:

First the men were separated from the women and children and made to crouch outside on the frozen ground, wrapped in blankets. Then the soldiers went room-to-room, torches shining from raised rifles.

It was night in Ateh Khaneh, a cluster of adobe houses ringed with high mud walls near Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan, and the U.S. army's 101st Airborne Division had received a tip-off.

Matt Robinson / Reuters

A Chinook helicopter lands to pick up U.S. soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division following a night raid in Yahya Khel, Paktika province, Afghanistan on Feb. 21.

A man named Mullah Ibrahim, known to U.S. forces as a prominent Taliban commander in the Yahya Khel district of Paktika province, had gathered a small group of fighters for an imminent attack on a nearby U.S. military base.

A 15-year-old boy would blow himself up in the assault, the source said. Intercepted radio chatter pointed to the same village.

So after dark, soldiers of 1st Battalion, 506th infantry regiment landed by helicopter several kilometers from the target and approached on foot.

The battalion had lost three men in the six months since they had deployed, all to direct fire in Yahya Khel.

But for the green glint of night-vision goggles, they were barely visible against the snow-covered mountains that rose before them.

The intelligence would prove faulty, or perhaps a 24-hour delay to the operation due to bad weather had given the fighters time to leave before they were caught.

But the mission gave a rare glimpse of the night raids that U.S. commanders say are essential to breaking the back of an escalating insurgency.

The tactic has been stepped up dramatically since General David Petraeus took command of foreign troops in June 2010.

Critics argue it has outraged Afghans and undermined efforts to win the trust of a population caught between a foreign military force -- now 150,000-strong -- and the insurgents that live among them. Supporters say they are a fact of war -- it's easier to catch the enemy when he can't see you coming.

Matt Robinson / Reuters

An Afghan youth is photographed wearing a "Capture Tag" for military records during a night raid in Yahya Khel, Paktika province on Feb. 21.

In the early hours of Sunday, it began with snipers taking up positions on rooftops.

An Afghan soldier using a loudhailer asked the villagers to come out. When there was no response, soldiers threw "flash bangs" on the ground, causing a series of small explosions like fireworks.

Startled, people emerged like shadows and faced raised weapons. The women and children were taken aside by the military's Female Engagement Team (FET) of female soldiers, a nod to Afghanistan's deeply conservative society.

The soldiers moved quickly and quietly. Their tone was sharp, with the occasional insult. Fluorescent sticks scattered on the ground and rifle-mounted torches provided the only light.

At one house, women and children huddled against a crumbling wall in sub-zero temperatures. They were given blankets and ushered back indoors.

Mullah Ibrahim was not there. Nor were any military-age males. Overhead, air support watched for movement in neighboring compounds.

No threat found, the elderly men and a boy who appeared to be in his teens were led inside. One by one they were finger-printed, swabs taken, retinas scanned. A soldier took a photograph of each man with a white board known as a "Capture Tag" hanging around his neck bearing his name and address.

Each was branded with the letter "H" in ink on the back of his right hand. It stands for HIIDE, or Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, after the gadget they use to record the data.

A few were taken individually to another room for "tactical questioning."

Matt Robinson / Reuters

A U.S. soldier enters biometric data obtained from an Afghan man during a night raid in Yahya Khel, Paktika province on Feb. 21.

The raid over, the Afghan soldiers sat chatting with the male villagers around a wood-burning stove.

Through an interpreter, company commander Captain Todd Tompkins apologized for the intrusion. One elderly Afghan man spoke for the rest.

"We understand, but we are worried about our women and children being woken in the night," he said. "I guarantee you there are no Taliban here."

As in Ateh Khaneh, 80 percent of recent raids have ended without a shot being fired.

But others prove deadly. Across Afghanistan, in the last three months, 600 people have been killed during night raids that have reached a rate of nearly 20 per night.

U.S. forces say Yahya Khel is used as a staging ground for insurgent attacks over the mountains in neighboring Ghazni province and against the key Highway One.