Have The Taliban Defeated U.S. Air Power?

An op-ed in today’s New York Times claims that the Taliban have defeated American air power because of Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s directive restricting artillery and air strikes to avoid civilian casualties. The author, Lara Dadkhah, identified as an intelligence analyst with a defense consulting firm (you can't swing a dead cat and not hit one of those in this town), argues that restricting bombing runs puts troops at unnecessary risk and prolongs the war, and hence the inevitable civilian casualties, because if we’re not bombing the Taliban we’re not killing them fast enough.

“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.

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.”

This is a familiar argument made for a long time now by air power enthusiasts, most prominently by Air Force Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap, who believe dropping more bombs can win counterinsurgency wars. There are a lot of holes in Dadkhah’s op-ed. To begin with, American troops are not on the defensive, that’s hyperbolic nonsense.

The real doozy, though, is this one:

“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.”

Really? How about the Soviet-Afghan war where the Soviet’s indiscriminate bombing campaign that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians served as a huge recruiting tool for the mujahedin. Dadkhah should read up on her history.

How about a more recent example. The Haqqani network in eastern Afghanistan is considered to be our most lethal adversary in this war and Haqqani fighters have launched some of the most costly attacks against U.S. troops.

Here is what Afghan expert Thomas Ruttig, who knows of what he speaks, writes about Jalaluddin Haqqani, considered by CIA officers in the 1980s as the “most impressive Pashtun battlefield commander,” in the excellent book, Decoding the New Taliban:

“Today, Haqqani’s fight might be increasingly motivated by feelings of revenge. During various bombing raids and predator drone attacks against his houses and madrasas, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, starting in early 2002 and with the latest strike on 23 October 2008 on his madrasa in Danday Darkhapel near Miramshah, many of his family members, among them women and infants, and students lost their lives.”

McChrystal, in guidance issued to ISAF troops (.pdf file), explained the calculation in counterinsurgency, and any wars amongst the people for that matter, as follows:

“From a conventional standpoint, the killing of two insurgents in a group of ten leaves eight remaining: 10 - 2 = 8. From the insurgent standpoint, those two killed were likely related to many others who will want vengeance. If civilian casualties occurred, that number will be much higher. Therefore, the death of two creates more willing recruits: 10 minus 2 equals 20 (or more) rather than 8.”

Former British intelligence officer Andrew Garfield, who periodically works in Afghanistan, explained to me the issue of civilian casualties by using an example from his own country’s history. In Ireland, thousands protest every year to commemorate 1972’s “Bloody Sunday,” where British paras opened fire on a civilian crowd, killing thirteen. That incident left lasting scars that have still not healed to this day, he said. Why would we not expect similar feelings among civilians today in cultures where revenge is a guiding principle of life?

The other thing that bothers me about this op-ed is that those who advocate a stepped up use of air and artillery strikes in Afghanistan treat it as a binary choice: either American troops bomb insurgents or they let them get away. There is, of course, another choice: ground troops firing and maneuvering to close with and kill or capture the insurgents.

Granted, that course of action puts more American troops at direct risk in close-in firefights with Taliban fighters. But it’s probably a more precise application of firepower than dropping bombs on houses and reduces the chances that McChrystal’s equation will come into play and more, rather than less, insurgents will be produced.

Update: The always readable Joshua Foust over at Registan.net weighs in.

-- Greg

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