2023 Online Commentary, Personal Narrative finalist

The Night Raids

About the Project

More than a year before the fall of Kabul, Lynzy Billing reached out with an incredible pitch for a story. She’d been crisscrossing swaths of Afghanistan to track deadly night raids by squads of Afghan soldiers who were funded, trained and directed by the CIA. The raids, she said, were often based on disastrously faulty intelligence, resulting in the deaths of scores of civilians who had no ties to the Taliban. What’s more, she’d gotten inside one of the squads and convinced two special forces soldiers to talk about the botched raids. We grilled her over Skype. Who was this young reporter, and was she really doing this dangerous and difficult reporting?

She was. Over time we realized that Billing, a British citizen of Pakistani-Afghan origins, was doing something no one else was—nor will be able to do again. Others had documented the cover-up of casualties from airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Billing was documenting in real time what the United States was doing on the ground in rural pockets of Afghanistan, in places few reporters, if any, had visited. Amid the chaos of war, she meticulously counted the dead, cross-checking her findings with witnesses, local hospitals and a forensic pathologist she recruited to help her. Her reporting focused on one of four CIA-backed Zero Units over a four-year period. Her tally of the dead—at least 452 civilians killed during 107 raids—is almost certainly an undercount.

Billing had a deeply personal reason for pursuing this story. Three decades earlier, her mother and twin sister were killed in a night raid during the bitter civil war that followed the defeat of the Soviet Union. Two years later, her father was killed fighting. At 12, Billing was adopted by a British couple and later became a determined freelance journalist bent on covering conflict zones. Her return to Afghanistan began as an attempt to investigate the deaths of her family but was transformed when she learned about the toll the CIA-directed commandos were taking on the populace.

With courage and humanity, Billing examined the consequences of these raids through the eyes of all involved: The survivors traumatized by raids that killed family members without explanation or consequence. The former Afghan spy chief who acknowledged flaws in the U.S. intelligence powering the Zero Units. The Afghan commandos who’d come to doubt their role in America’s war. As one said: “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.” And the American Ranger who was among the U.S. special operations forces who regularly joined the raids: “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.” In Billing’s hands, each emerges not as simply a victim or perpetrator, but as a lens through which to assess an anti-terrorism strategy deployed by American forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.