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 center in the current offensive in Marja, 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 American air dominance. Last July, the commander of Western forces, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued a directive that air strikes (and long-range artillery fire) be authorized only under “very limited and prescribed conditions.”
So in a modern refashioning of the obvious — that war is harmful to civilian populations — the United States 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.
In Marja, American and Afghan troops have shown great skill in routing the Taliban occupiers. But 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. “We didn’t come to Marja to destroy it, or to hurt civilians,” a Marine officer told reporters after waiting 90 minutes before the Cobra helicopters he had requested showed up with their Hellfire missiles. He’s right that the goal is not to kill bystanders or destroy towns, but an overemphasis on civilian protection is now putting American troops on the defensive in what is intended to be a major offensive.
And Marja is not exceptional.
While the number of American forces in Afghanistan has more than doubled since 2008, to nearly 70,000 today, the critical 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 percent during that same period. (While I am employed by a defense consulting company, my research and opinions on air support are my own.)
Anecdotal evidence and simple logic dictate that there are two reasons for this relative decrease of air support: Troops in contact with the enemy are calling for air support less often than before the tactical directive was issued, and when they do call for air strikes their requests are more frequently being denied.
Pentagon data show that the percentage of sorties sent out that resulted in air strikes has also declined, albeit modestly, to 5.6 percent from 6 percent. According to the military’s own air-power summaries, often when the planes or helicopters arrive, they simply perform shows of force, or drop flares rather than munitions. It is only a matter of time before the Taliban see flares and flyovers for what they are: empty threats.
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.
Some would argue that more combat troops will always mean more combat troop deaths. That holds true, however, only if you believe that our soldiers should fight fair. 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 United Nations 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 percent, to 2,412, and the number killed by Taliban troops and other insurgents rose by 41 percent. 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. Just last month, the Taliban set off a series of bombs in the heart of Kabul; the insurgents, it appears, no longer need to winter in Pakistan.
Of course, all this is not to say that the United States and NATO should be oblivious to civilian deaths, or wage “total” war in Afghanistan. Clearly, however, the pendulum has swung too far in favor 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.
Lara M. Dadkhah, an intelligence analyst.