Stalemate through Airpower

In case you still thought stupidity was in any way a disqualification from being printed on the New York Times op-ed page, let’s a take a look at this gem from Thursday’s paper. A piece from Lara Dadkhah, titled “Empty Skies over Afghanistan”, argues that the US forces have become far too cautious about using air power in the war against the Taliban.

It’s possible she’s right, of course, but her argument  seems naive of basic tenets of counterinsurgency warfare, political philosophy, and military history. You need only have opened a newspaper a few times a year in the last five to know that there are many fine reasons to reduce our dependence on air support. Somehow, Dadkhah and her editors didn’t feel the need to address any of them.

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.

Astonishing, isn’t it? She dismisses in just a few words practically all of 20th century military history, and the work of countless officers and scholars who have contemplated counterinsurgency warfare. Her piece does not even acknowledge the possibility that she is wrong on this crucial point, and her editors apparently did not feel that an argument like this needed to bother with likely counterarguments. She does not even provide evidence in favor of her claim.

You might be able to make an argument that civilian casualties were irrelevant or even desirable to strategists of antiquity. But I’m not interested in those examples, really, because the rise of mass media in the 20th century has completely changed the importance of civilian casualties. As propaganda has increased in reach and effectiveness, civilian deaths have emerged as one of the most difficult problems a modern military can face.

You could make a strong case that Germany lost World War I because of civilian casualties. Germany’s reputation was irreversibly damaged by the campaign in Belgium, despite the fact that the German troops in Belgium were neither particularly inhumane nor particularly destructive by the standards of that war. Yet the saga of “Brave Little Belgium” cemented Germany’s identity as the vicious aggressor in the European melee.

Unrestricted submarine warfare would ultimately hand Woodrow Wilson the casus belli, partly on the grounds that submarine warfare was a uniquely immoral way to wage war. The innocent victims aboard civilian vessels like the Lusitania proved to be far more consequential than any war material within its hull.

We might also consider the role of civilian casualties in eroding domestic support for a war. It is important to remember that Americans did not turn on the Vietnam War solely because they objected to the draft. As the war dragged on and American firepower was increasingly employed indiscriminately, the war itself began to look less defensible. The US military came out of the war with its reputation a shambles in large part because its prosecution of that war struck many as monstrous.

Then we come to the specific type of war we are fighting right now. Dadkhah’s dismissive reference to “‘hearts and minds’ enthusiasts” is strange considering that the war in Afghanistan is almost universally considered a struggle for the support of the civilian population. In this kind of war, American air power is not a strategic advantage. It is, at best, a tactical advantage. And the tactical and strategic concerns do not always align.

Then she unleashes this statistical observation upon her readers:

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.

The only way this is a problem is if you believe that the number of close air support sorties should be directly related to the number of troops in the the theater. So if 30,000 troops need 100 sorties a month, 60,000 troops must need 200.

But why should these numbers be locked to a fixed proportion? One of the many, many reasons to employ more troops in a counterinsurgency warfare is so that they are less dependent on supporting fire from air and artillery. An overstretched, undermanned occupation force is going to get into some tough scrapes in which airstrikes are going to be the only way to stave off disaster. A too-small patrol or outpost on the cusp of being overrun needs helicopters and jets to come to the rescue. But a stronger force has the luxury of using less destructive tactics. That’s one of the reasons we sent more troops: to have the luxury of flexibility.

Dadkhah is also sick of all this hand-wringing about civilian casualties, and the ridiculous confluence of moral and strategic concerns that led to tighter restrictions on airstrikes.

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, 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.

This is to willfully miss the point. For one thing, the goal is not to save more Afghan civilian lives but to prevent fewer of them being lost to NATO fire. For Dadkhah, this is an empty and fundamentally hypocritical gesture. If more Afghans are being killed overall, and there’s a chance they could be saved if NATO forces went after the Taliban with every available weapon, then the moral course is to use those weapons. A few more Afghans might die in NATO airstrikes, but more would be saved over all.

The problem is one of human nature. No one who just lost his family to a stray bomb or artillery shell is going to see the big picture that Dadkhah thinks she sees. Most of NATO’s victims would probably decide that NATO is their enemy, and the argument that more Afghans are being saved on the macro-scale is not going to cut it amidst the rubble and the dead. And since the worst mistake you can make in an counterinsurgency is to convince more people to fight you, or at least give tacit support to those fighting you, the planes should stay grounded.

I might also add that her impatience with the “hearts and minds” campaign is premature, to say the least. We botched the war in Afghanistan for 8 years, and among many crucial mistakes we made was an excessive reliance on air power to hit insurgents. The problem is that we frequently did not hit insurgents, just people who looked like insurgents, a group that includes the entire population of Afghanistan. While I personally feel that eight years of screwing up a war is quite enough, I will at least say this for McChrystal: he seems to have some understanding of why we were failing.

Dadkhah concludes with this sober reflection on war.

Of course, all this is not to say that we 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.

I have no idea what she means by “victory” here. All she has demonstrated is that reducing the number of close air support missions has made tactical success more difficult. Body counts will not bring Afghanistan any closer to stability, and that’s all that airstrikes can give us.

Worse, however, is her dismissal of efforts to make war less monstrous and less ugly. It’s not hypocrisy to spare civilian populations as much suffering as possible. The real lie is to say that war is so inherently horrible that we should give up trying limit it.

(Since I wrote the above, this happened. This is my problem with airstrikes in general: no matter how carefully they are employed, they are fundamentally imprecise and subject to a number of variables. Not only do mistakes like this infuriate the families of the victims, but they also alienate the Afghan and international forces with whom we share an alliance.)

    • Spades
    • February 22nd, 2010 4:20pm

    I’m no expert (I’ve never been in the military) but in war people die. Sure there are ways you can try to prevent it but it still happens nonetheless. Airstrikes can be inaccurate but I think they get the job done (I’m trying my best to not sound like an armchair warrior) albeit a bit messy. I honestly think that they should continue with the way they are fighting the war. Its been working well by the looks of it since NATO has been pushing back the Taliban for the past couple of months. Also I think you’re going a bit overboard when you called her an idiot (at least you implied that). Obviously she isn’t if she gets to write for the New York Times.

    • I have to point out that her argument is that we should not continue with the way we are currently fighting the war, but should instead start using airpower more aggressively (like we did from 2001 through 2008). The offensive that’s currently under way is where she gets her evidence that NATO forces are fighting the wrong way.

      The other thing is this: the entire reason we are still in Afghanistan is to stabilize the government and the country so that it does not become a lawless land where extremists can hide and flourish. The only way we will ever complete that mission is by convincing Afghans that it is in their best interest to support the government and to work with international forces. I do not see how we will ever accomplish that if, in the process of fighting the insurgency, we continue inadvertently killing civilians. Especially because we are an outside force and widely distrusted to begin with. Afghans are not predisposed to accept our explanations and apologies at face value.

      Do you remember when the US was bombing Belgrade during the Kosovo war and we accidentally hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade? This was back in 1998, I think. Anyway, a year or so ago I was talking with some Chinese about US – Chinese relations and they brought up the incident as evidence of why so many Chinese distrusted and disliked America. One of them was convinced we’d hit the embassy on purpose. These were educated women, and one of them honestly thought that some American officer had marked the Chinese embassy on a map and said, “As long as we’re bombing the Serbs, let’s get the Chinese, too.” I could not make her believe that the US military made mistakes like that. She was convinced we meant to do it. Paradoxically, it was her belief in American power and technological prowess that convinced her that we intentionally killed Chinese embassy workers. America could not make a mistake like that.

      Every time we drop a bomb on the wrong building or accidentally open fire on civilians instead of insurgents, we leave ourselves open to misinterpretation. We basically do the Taliban’s job for them by painting ourselves as the bad guys. Dadkhah never addresses any of this in her piece, and to make this argument, you have to address these issues. They cut to the heart of the entire mission there. This is a sloppy argument in favor of a controversial and practically discredited approach to the war in Afghanistan. And when we’re talking about people’s lives and proposing changes in American policy, sloppiness and intellectual dishonesty strike me as deeply irresponsible.

  1. Spades :
    Also I think you’re going a bit overboard when you called her an idiot (at least you implied that). Obviously she isn’t if she gets to write for the New York Times.

    Yes, I agree that Rob could have been a bit more diplomatic. But having a widely published, internationally recognized newspaper as a soapbox does not automatically qualify Ms Dadkah a thoughtful scholar.

    The problem with airstrikes is not that they cause deaths, it’s that they cause indiscriminate deaths – the blast radius of a 500 lb bomb is much larger than the havoc wreaked by even automatic weapons fire.

    General McChrystal’s orders mostly cut down on unobserved airstrikes, rather than close air support missions against enemies in contact. This is a critical distinction.

    Close air support with a target selected by a foward observer tends to be not as bad – the real problem creeps in when targets are chosen remotely based on human or signals intelligence (often incorrect) or purely on the observations of an aircraft or drone. For example, one of the catalysts for the change or orders is the (shockingly frequent) confusion of wedding processions with enemy convoys.

    So McChrystal’s orders are in the best interest of a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign, albeit excruciating for troops on the ground who can no longer rely on air support. It’s an ugly, but necessary, tradeoff.

    • Spades
    • February 22nd, 2010 6:39pm

    I think you misinterpretated my post. I’m not suggesting that we get more agressive with our airstikes. I’m just saying that we should continue on with what we are doing. If it worked for the past couple offensives in Afghanistan (Khanjar and Cobra’s Anger being examples) and it seems to be working for the new offensive that just started why should we change our formula? Don’t change what ain’t broken is my motto.

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