In 2019, reporter Lynzy Billing returned to Afghanistan to research the murders of her mother and sister nearly 30 years earlier. Instead, in the country’s remote reaches, she stumbled upon the C.I.A.-backed Zero Units, who conducted night raids — quick, brutal operations designed to have resounding psychological impacts while ostensibly removing high-priority enemy targets.
So, Billing attempted to catalog the scale of civilian deaths left behind by just one of four Zero Units, known as the 02, over a four year period.
The resulting report represents an effort no one else has done or will ever be able to do again. Here is what she found:
- At least 452 civilians were killed in 107 raids. This number is almost certainly an undercount. While some raids did result in the capture or death of known militants, others killed bystanders or appeared to target people for no clear reason.
- A troubling number of raids appear to have relied on faulty intelligence by the C.I.A. and other U.S. intelligence-gathering services. Two Afghan Zero Unit soldiers described raids they were sent on in which they said their targets were chosen by the United States.
- The former head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency acknowledged that the units were getting it wrong at times and killing civilians. He oversaw the Zero Units during a crucial period and agreed that no one paid a consequence for those botched raids. He went on to describe an operation that went wrong: “I went to the family myself and said: ‘We are sorry. … We want to be different from the Taliban.’ And I mean we did, we wanted to be different from the Taliban.”
- The Afghan soldiers weren’t alone on the raids; U.S. special operations forces soldiers working with the C.I.A. often joined them. The Afghan soldiers Billing spoke to said they were typically accompanied on raids by at least 10 U.S. special operations forces soldiers. “These deaths happened at our hands. I have participated in many raids,” one of the Afghans said, “and there have been hundreds of raids where someone is killed and they are not Taliban or ISIS, and where no militants are present at all.”
- Military planners baked potential “collateral damage” into the pre-raid calculus — how many women/children/noncombatants were at risk if the raid went awry, according to one U.S. Army Ranger Billing spoke to. Those forecasts were often wildly off, he said, yet no one seemed to really care. He told Billing that night raids were a better option than airstrikes but acknowledged that the raids risked creating new insurgent recruits. “You go on night raids, make more enemies, then you gotta go on more night raids for the more enemies you now have to kill.”