Thursday, July 24, 2008

Airpower in Afghanistan

In the last two days the Washington Post and the NY Times have published pieces about the toll of civilian casualties in airstrikes in Afghanistan that at first glance appear to contradict each other. The NY Times article discusses how careful planning has lowered the number of civilians killed in planned airstrikes, while the Washington Post focuses on the heavy toll of civilians killed in three airstrikes in the past month. Here's an excerpt from the NY Times piece:

Air Force lawyers vet all the airstrikes approved by the operational air commanders. Senior Pentagon officials said the more stringent rules of engagement now in effect for Afghanistan specified the acceptable levels of risk to civilians for a priority attack. They said these more stringent rules required a significantly lower risk of civilian casualties than was acceptable in Iraq.

Missions in Afghanistan that are judged vital but highly risky to civilians may now require approval by the overall regional commander and, in some instances, even by the defense secretary himself, according to Pentagon and military officials.

“In their deliberate targeting, the Air Force has all but eliminated civilian casualties in Afghanistan,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst with Human Rights Watch. “They have very effective collateral damage mitigation procedures.”

The greater risk of civilian casualties, Mr. Garlasco said, comes in unplanned targeting, when American and allied troops come under attack unexpectedly and call for airstrikes for urgent help.

If Human Rights Watch thinks the Air Force is doing a good job eliminating "collateral damage" then you can be sure that the Air Force is really trying. But that last sentence is key. From the Washington Post, here are the descriptions of the three attacks that killed 78 civilians in this last month alone:

The first airstrike under investigation took place July 4 in Zoomia Bala village in the eastern province of Nurestan. Two U.S. helicopters unleashed missiles and gunfire on a pair of vehicles fleeing an area near a NATO and Afghan military base shortly before an attack, according to a confidential cable about the incident sent by the E.U. delegation in Kabul to its member states. At least 16 civilians were killed, according to Afghan media reports and interviews conducted with the E.U. delegation. Nurestan's governor, Tamim Nuristani, said at the time that 22 civilians were killed. He was fired by Karzai days after making the claim.

The second airstrike, which took place the morning of July 6 in the eastern province of Nangahar, claimed the lives of members of the wedding party, according to Afghan and Western officials. A Western official in Afghanistan familiar with details of the aerial assault, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry is ongoing, said U.S. forces dropped bombs on the party as it traveled through a wide, open area, where presumably it would have been easier for the air attack coordinator or the pilot to determine whether those in the party were civilians, not Taliban fighters.

Nader Nadery, a commissioner with the government-funded Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, agreed, saying that even though the commission's investigators had found that a few men may have been traveling with the wedding party, the presence of women and children should have been clear.

"In large Afghan weddings, women typically wear big green chadors or big red chadors. Their clothes are shiny for the celebration," Nadery said.

The third incident occurred Sunday in the western province of Farah. At least eight Afghan police officers were killed in the district of Ana Darreh when a convoy of U.S. and Afghan soldiers mistakenly called in an airstrike on the officers' location, according to a statement issued by U.S. military officials immediately after the attack.

And a key statistic:

An estimated 698 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year, compared with 430 during the same period last year, the United Nations says. Of those, 255 were killed by NATO forces.

Neither article breaks down the airstrikes by type (planned or unplanned) but it would seem obvious that unplanned airstrikes that occur on relatively short notice as result of developments on a highly fluid battlefield, must certainly make up the largest proportion of airstrikes in Afghanistan. And despite the great lengths the Air Force has gone to in an effort to eliminate civilians casualties, the number of casualties grows. Certainly, this is a result of the over-reliance upon airstrikes that is the hallmark of our counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Here's Joshua Foust, guest-blogging at Foreign Policy Watch, about the Air Force's efforts to make itself more relevant in an era of counter-insurgency:

Andres claims the first principle in counterinsurgency is to shore up the legitimacy of the government. Air strikes in Afghanistan, at least in the frequency with which they occur, have done the opposite: apart from all of our other policies, which also undermine the Afghan government, the appalling number of civilians killed in air strikes the last two years is probably the best insurgent recruiting tool out there. Hamid Karzai’s repeated public entreaties to reduce them has fallen on deaf ears; every time, then, that we mistakenly bomb a wedding party and murder 50 women, we further undercut the perception of Kabul as the political center of the country. In other words, the West has given normal citizens in Afghanistan no reason to have faith in their government.

This is because air power is not very precise, and it is not really limited—especially when you have small numbers of militants hiding in a village of mud huts. A 3-meter CEP (Circular Error Probable, which is a radius in which a weapon will land 50% of the time) is useless when even mild blast effects can rip apart mud huts and kill innocents. That is why, despite downgrading its standard munition to 500 lbs, NATO will still kill far too many civilians with such a light footprint. Over-investing in air power, and pretending that can make up for a troop shortfall, is sheer folly.

Indeed, the most precise weapon is the individual soldier, not an aircraft.

And therein lies the rub; a successful counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan will never be realized until we reduce a reliance upon airpower borne of our unwillingness or inability (thanks to Iraq) to station more troops in Afghanistan. Not only is it counter-productive politically, it's ineffective militarily, if attacks like this are any indication. It is long, long past time that we began to realize the seriousness of the threat posed by a resurgent Taliban.

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