Friday, July 27, 2007

Air Counter-insurgency

Yet again, we have a story this morning about airstrikes in Afghanistan that are purported to have killed civilians in addition to the militants being targeted:

Malim Mirwali, a member of Parliament for Gereshk, said that more than 40 civilians were killed in the airstrikes _ a figure that one local resident also cited.

"The war planes came and bombed these villagers _ more than 40 civilians killed, including women and children," said villager Nimatullah Khan.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force said it did not have any information about the incident and was looking into it.

Now, one might be predisposed to believe that these villagers just randomly make these stories up to make the coalition forces look bad. Or maybe they exaggerate the toll of civilians killed. It's more likely that on a fairly regular basis, Afghan civilians are getting killed in airstrikes that target Taliban fighters. Now, via IraqSlogger, we have what I find to be a fairly interesting inside portrait of the decision-making process that goes into planning an airstrike (it's from Michael Yon of Al Qaeda cannibalism fame, but bear with me):

The F-16 and Shadow both beamed down live images of the house where the terrorists had hidden after firing on US forces. Now was option time. Which weapon to use? There were so many choices: mortars, missiles, and cannons of various sorts, among others.

In addition to the F-16’s bombs of various sorts, there was the MLRS rocket system dozens of miles away that had been precisely punching rockets through Baqubah rooftops for days...There were the 155mm cannons on this base that can hit and flatten anything in Baqubah and beyond. The Apache helicopters could spin up with their rockets and cannons. Infantrymen could just roll in. Or tanks. Or Bradleys. Or Strykers. Even Humvees. The idea was to use just the amount of force to kill the enemy fighters, but leave everyone in the surrounds unscathed, if possible. If that was not possible, often they would simply not fire, but other times they would. Judgment call.

They discussed dropping a JDAM (a special type of bomb from one of the jets), but were worried about CD (collateral damage). The idea of a strafe run came up but that would likely cause even more CD, and so that idea was also nixed.

While they were discussing how best to kill the guys, the F-16 was running low on fuel. The jets flew low in a show of force and rumbled away. I walked to breakfast at 0515 while they were still plotting. I have no idea if they killed them and if they did, what method they finally settled on. But I know that when there is that kind of careful deliberation in the TOC, combined with excellent combat soldiers on the streets, (the low number of civilian casualties) that otherwise would seem unbelievable are believable.

Now Yon is a smart guy, and he qualifies his positive review with "when there is the kind of careful deliberation..." and that's almost certainly true. You'll note in this instance, American forces apparently had all the time in the world to bomb the insurgents who had taken cover in this house, and they took so long at it the F-16 hovering ahead had to fly off for want of fuel. But the IraqSlogger writer who cites to Yon's piece makes a note of his own about it:

...Michael Yon today chronicles a scene of command deliberation in Baquba, illustrating the care with which the military is trying to avoid civilian casualties. Their careful deliberation on targeting is admirable, but what also becomes clear in the recounting of this episode is the difficulty of fighting an insurgency with F-16s.

Well yes, there is that. The fact that it took so long for them to decide what weapons system they should use and how, indicates that the soldiers had a hard time figuring out how to actually use the weapon at their disposal-a powerful fighter jet, in addition to an array of other weapons-against a few guys probably armed with little more than AK-47's and rocket launchers. Especially when they were hiding in a house in the middle of a residential area. Put simply, the F-16 was never built with the purpose of engaging a few guys hiding in a building in a city. In fact, I'm not sure there is any weapons system in the American arsenal that was built for that express the highly trained infantry-man with a gun.

And of course, the circumstances under which these airstrikes take place are often wildly differing. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, friendly forces are calling in airstrikes when they're facing a large number of fighters who have no intention of running off into buildings, and who might inflict severe casualties on American or allied forces in a stand up fight. At those times, soldiers in the rear do not have the luxury of debating for half an hour or more how to hit those insurgents. They'll err on the side of saving American lives, even at great cost to Iraqi cvilians. This despite the fact that in many of these instances, American forces pose no danger of being overrun or defeated. It's a simple calculus really; an Iraqi life does not count for as much as the life of an American soldier (it's not even close) and bombs and missiles will fly even in crowded residential areas as a result.

And American forces don't always err on the side of caution even when they have time on their side and there's no threat of friendly casualties, as this incident makes clear. In that case there was no "careful deliberation" except the kind that resulted in a handful of fighters being killed at the cost of seven dead children. Some members of those childrens' families probably did not spend much time in "careful deliberation" before they decided to join up with the Taliban or al Qaeda as a result.

Now, none of this is to say there is no place for airpower in counter-insurgency. There's probably a place for every weapons system in counter-insurgency save nuclear weapons. But for various reasons-including a lack of manpower, an unwillingness to accept American casualties, and certainly an institutional attitude of "use it or lose it" (at budget time that is)-airpower has assumed an importance it should never assume in counter-insurgency combat operations. We are not going to win in Iraq or in Afghanistan from the air. The best weapons system is the infantry man, and airpower can't make up for the fact that we don't have enough of those in either theater.

1 comment:

paddyshap said...

The growing dependence on air-power and "Un-manning the front lines" (A Navy recruiting slogan) is appalling and dangerous. It's dangerous because it gives the American people the belief that wars can be won with little to no danger to Americans. Ultimately, Marines and soldiers end up stuck in mid to low-level conflict zones for years on end because of such short-sightedness.

It's appalling because war might be the first and last expression of our humanity. It's the ability to empathize with your enemy that ultimately ends wars. When the fighting is done by faceless machines, and we don't have to see the suffering and horror that is inherent in any conflict, we lose any sympathy, and we continue to pound away from above.

I've written about this at some length, along with the growing threat of the Air Force regarding American foreign policy.