Empty skies over Afghanistan

The Taliban have found a way to beat American airpower. And they have managed this remarkable feat with American help.

Written by New York Times | Published: February 19, 2010 3:20:37 am

The Taliban have found a way to beat American airpower. And they have managed this remarkable feat with American help.

The consequences of this development are front and centre in the current offensive in Marjah,Afghanistan,where air support to American and Afghan forces has been all but grounded by concerns about civilian casualties.

American and NATO military leaders — worried by Taliban propaganda claiming that air strikes have killed an inordinate number of civilians,and persuaded by “hearts and minds” enthusiasts that the key to winning the war is the Afghan population’s goodwill — have largely relinquished the strategic advantage of air dominance. Last July General McChrystal issued a directive that air strikes be authorised only under “very limited and prescribed conditions.”

So in a modern refashioning of the obvious — that war is harmful to civilian populations — the US military has begun basing doctrine on the premise that dead civilians are harmful to the conduct of war. The trouble is,no past war has ever supplied compelling proof of that claim.

News reports indicate that our troops under heavy attack have had to wait an hour or more for air support,so that insurgents could be positively identified. The goal is not to kill bystanders or destroy towns,but an overemphasis on civilian protection is now putting US troops on the defensive in what is intended to be a major offensive.

And Marjah is not exceptional. While the number of American forces in Afghanistan has more than doubled since 2008,to nearly 70,000 today,the air support they get has not kept pace. According to my analysis of data compiled by the United States military,close air support sorties,which in Afghanistan are almost always unplanned and in aid of troops on the ground who are under intense fire,increased by just 27 per cent during that same period. (While I am employed by a defence consulting company,my research and opinions on air support are my own.)

Why? Troops in contact with the enemy are calling for air support less often than before,and when they do call for air strikes their requests are more frequently being denied.

One of the most egregious episodes of failed support occurred last September in Kunar Province,when a detachment of Marines and Afghan troops tried to search the village of Ganjgal for a weapons cache. When they were fired on by insurgents in the nearby hills,they radioed for artillery support,a request that was rejected on the ground that civilians might be injured. They then pleaded for helicopters,which didn’t arrive for more than an hour after the shooting started.

“We are pinned down,” a Marine major explained to his Afghan counterpart as they waited helplessly. “We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We’ve lost today.” In the end,four Marines,eight Afghan troops and an Afghan interpreter were dead,and 22 others wounded.

Logic dictates that no well-ordered army would give up its advantages and expect to win,and the United States military,which does not have the manpower in Afghanistan to fight the insurgents one-on-one,is no exception. Perhaps the directive against civilian casualties could be justified if one could show that Afghan lives were truly being saved,but that’s not the case. According to the latest report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan,the number of civilian deaths caused by Western and Afghan government forces decreased to 596 in 2009,from 828 the year before. But the overall number of civilian deaths in the country increased by 14 per cent to 2,412,and the number killed by Taliban and other insurgents rose by 41 per cent. For Afghan civilians who are dying in greater numbers every year,the fact that fewer deaths are caused by pro-government forces is cold comfort.

There is also little to indicate that the “hearts and minds” campaign has resulted in the population’s cooperation,especially in the all-important area of human intelligence. Afghans can be expected to cooperate with American forces only if they feel safe to do so — when we take permanent control of an area. Obviously,this involves defeating the enemy. With NATO intelligence services recently noting that the Taliban still have a “shadow government” in 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces,it’s hard to say we’re close to accomplishing that feat.

Of course,all this is not to say that the Untied States and NATO should be oblivious to civilian deaths,or wage “total” war in Afghanistan. Clearly,however,the pendulum has swung too far in favour of avoiding the death of innocents at all cost. General McChrystal’s directive was well-intentioned,but the lofty ideal at its heart is a lie,and an immoral one at that,because it pretends that war can be fair or humane.

Wars are always ugly,and always monstrous,and best avoided. Once begun,however,the goal of even a “long war” should be victory in as short a time as possible,using every advantage you have.

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