Thursday, August 09, 2007

British Criticize Airstrikes

It's not just bloggers here in the States and Afghan civilians complaining anymore; now the British are criticizing the American over-reliance on airpower in fighting the Taliban:

A senior British commander in southern Afghanistan said in recent weeks that he had asked that American Special Forces leave his area of operations because the high level of civilian casualties they had caused was making it difficult to win over local people.

Other British officers here in Helmand Province, speaking on condition of anonymity, criticized American Special Forces for causing most of the civilian deaths and injuries in their area. They also expressed concerns that the Americans’ extensive use of air power was turning the people against the foreign presence as British forces were trying to solidify recent gains against the Taliban.

A precise tally of civilian deaths is difficult to pin down, but one reliable count puts the number killed in Helmand this year at close to 300 civilians, the vast majority of them caused by foreign and Afghan forces, rather than the Taliban.

British forces arrived in the spring of 2006 and now have command of the province with some 6,000 troops deployed, with small units of Estonians and Danish troops. American Special Forces have continued to assist in fighting insurgents, operating as advisers to Afghan national security forces.

It is these American teams that are coming under criticism. They tend to work in small units that rely heavily on air cover because they are vulnerable to large groups of insurgents. Such Special Forces teams have often called in airstrikes in Helmand and other places where civilians have subsequently been found to have suffered casualties.

...the senior British commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity during an interview in July, said that in Sangin, which has been calm recently, there was no longer a need for United States Special Forces. “There aren’t large bodies of Taliban to fight anymore; we are dealing with small groups and we are trying to kick-start reconstruction and development,” he said.

So, no surprises there. Small teams of American forces are relying on airpower because they're actually outmatched by the Taliban forces they go up against, or they're unwilling to take the casualties that would come from a failure to use airpower. And apparently the British seem to be of the opinion that our forces are unnecessarily gung-ho-ing it around Helmand picking fights with the Taliban and then calling in airstrikes that kill fighters and civilians alike.

You'll pardon me for thinking that if the British think they have it under control, then maybe we shouldn't be conducting special operations in their territory that make their job more difficult. And yes, airpower is no substitute for boots on the ground in an insurgency, though no one in the American military command seems to have quite grasped that yet.

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