May 24, 2013
Carnage From the Air
Posted on Jul 9, 2007
Air War: Afghanistan
Even from such a partial list—undoubtedly lacking information from Iraq, where the air war has been notoriously overlooked by American reporters—a pattern can be seen. But beyond the loss of innocent lives (always, when finally admitted, officially “regretted” by the U.S. military), why should any of this matter?
Let’s start this way: Barring an unexpected change of policy, some version of this list of “errant” incidents, multiplied many times over, is likely to represent the future for both Afghanistan and Iraq. The obvious math of the military manpower situation in both countries tells us this is so—as does history.
In Afghanistan this year, Taliban suicide attacks alone have increased by 230%, while Iraq-style roadside IEDs are also a growing threat. In eastern Afghanistan, where the U.S. leads NATO operations, “militant attacks” rose 250% compared to May 2006, according to the U.S. military. NATO and American troop levels, now somewhere in the range of 46,000-50,000—approximately 20,000 of whom are from European countries and Canada—remain woefully inadequate for securing the country (if such a thing were even possible) and NATO casualties are on the rise.
Don’t expect reinforcements from NATO countries any time soon; while the U.S. Army and Marines, already stretched beyond capacity by the recent “surge” in Iraq, are probably incapable of reinforcing their Afghan contingent in any significant way. By elimination, this leaves one weapon in the American/NATO arsenal, air power, which is, in fact, ever more in use in response to a surge in Taliban ambushes and limited takeovers of villages (and even entire districts) in the Afghan south.
As the Europeans are well aware, air power—given the civilian casualties that invariably follow in its wake—is intensely counterproductive in a guerrilla war. “Every civilian dead means five new Taliban,” was the way a British officer just returned from Helmand Province put it recently.
However, an air-power strategy fits American predilections to a tee. As a Reuters piece aptly headlined the matter, the Americans in Afghanistan are “hooked on air power.” Americans have long been so. After all, with the singular exception of various Central American proxy wars during the Reagan years, air war has essentially been the American way of war since World War II. The Bush administration fought its Afghan War of 2001 largely from the air in support of the well-paid-off ground forces of the Northern Alliance, aided by Special Forces troops and lots of CIA money in suitcases. (In Iraq, of course, the invasion of March 2003 started with a massive air attack meant to “decapitate” Saddam Hussein’s regime—it did no such thing—while having the side benefit of shocking-and-awing hostile states in the region.)
Even after American ground forces moved in, Afghanistan has never ceased to be an Air Force war. B-1 bombers have been called in relatively regularly there (unlike in Iraq) and air strikes in the Afghan countryside have become a commonplace. By November 2006, David Cloud of the New York Times—who flew on a B-1 mission over the country (and noted that a similar flight the week he went up had “dropped its entire payload of eight 2,000-pound bombs and six 500-pound bombs after ground units called for help”)—reported that the use of air power had risen sharply there. More than 2,000 air strikes had been called in during the previous six months, with a concomitant rise in civilian casualties. In addition, the Air Force’s full contingent of B-1s had been “shifted over the summer from the British air base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to a Middle Eastern airfield closer to Afghanistan,” cutting mission flight time by a critical two hours.
Though no post-November 2006 figures are available, the recent spate of reported “incidents” confirms that missions have risen again this year, along with noncombatant deaths. According to Laura King of the Los Angeles Times, in a piece typically headlined, “Errant Afghan Civilian Deaths Surge”: “More than 500 Afghan civilians have been reported killed this year, and the rate has dramatically increased in the last month.” Local dissatisfaction and bitterness are also noticeably on the rise.
The Karzai government remains weak, ineffective, and corrupt, while Taliban strength grows in southern Afghanistan and across the border in the Pakistani tribal areas. There, for instance, Jane Perlez and Ismail Khan of the New York Times reported that, according to a secret document from the Pakistani Interior Ministry, “the Taliban have recently begun bombing oil tank trucks that pass through the Khyber area near the border on their way to Afghanistan for United States and NATO forces. A convoy of 12 of the trucks was hit with grenades and gutted on Thursday night in the third such incident in a month.”
To all of this, air power is the “NATO” answer for the present and the future, the only answer in sight, however counterproductive it may prove to be.
According to a report in the British press, American General Dan McNeill, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has already been dubbed “Bomber McNeill” (and it’s not meant to be a compliment). Despite periodic “reviews of procedures,” nor is his strategy—call in the planes—likely to change any time soon. The U.S. military (and NATO officials) have essentially confirmed this. Despite a growing chorus of criticism in Afghanistan (and among NATO allies), Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel has praised the “extensive procedures” in place “to avoid civilian casualties.” “We think the procedures that we have in place are good—they work,” he told reporters. U.S. spokespeople have recently indicated that NATO is not about to “change its use of air power against the Taliban.”
So, in Afghanistan, the future is already clear enough. More Taliban attacks mean more air strikes mean more dead noncombatants (“including women and children”) mean more alienated, angry Afghanis in a spiral of devolution to which no end can yet be foreseen.
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