Posts Tagged ‘ airstikes

Disaster on the Horizon

For all the iconic images of that day, my clearest memory from 9/11 is of my friend B looking over his shoulder. B is a Palestinian-American. We were in the same class when the first tower fell.

The history teacher across the hall brought us the news, and that was when our teacher finally gave up on lecturing. He turned off the lights and put on the television. Not long after that, the second tower fountained apart into the dust cloud. Then came the reports that Palestinians were dancing in the streets.

B visibly flinched. Then, looking as hunted as I’ve ever seen anyone, he flashed a nervous glance over each shoulder. He curled forward in his seat, then slumped down and rested his head in the crook of his folded arms. I wanted to say something to him, but I don’t remember what. A lot has changed since then.

I grew up with Muslim kids. Anti-Muslim sentiment was always strange to me, because Muslims were not oddities where I grew up. But they all had experiences with it. A Pakistani girl I grew up with once told me a story about the day of the Oklahoma city bombing. She and her family were taking a flight out of O’Hare, and nobody knew anything about what had happened beyond the fact that there had been a terrorist attack. She said that a woman on her plane went into hysterics and started yelling at the flight attendants to take this girl and her family off the plane. She was terrified that there were going to be more terrorist attacks, and the Pakistanis looked like terrorists to her. Everyone else just stared at them.

I do not know what was going through other Muslims’ minds that morning. I’d imagine the same horror, but with even more apprehension and sense of loss. But B was the only one from a place where people were openly rejoicing at the deaths of Americans. I felt sorry for how conspicuous and ashamed he must have felt. At the same time, I entertained dark visions of cluster bombs being dropped across Palestine, showering the dancers with their own limbs.

So I don’t know what I would have said to him. “I know you don’t feel that way,” or maybe, “We know you’re not one of them.” But would that even have been true? Was he only embarrassed by the behavior the Palestinians across the world, or was he also conflicted because he understood why they danced?

Ten years ago, the media framed America’s reaction as one of bewilderment and hurt confusion: “Why do they hate us?” It alighted on comforting answers. The basest response was that the terrorists hated us for our virtues. Freedom and economic opportunity drove terrorists crazy, because it interfered with their dream of establishing a global caliphate. In this formulation, the terrorist was a Grinch-like figure, flying passenger jets into Whoville because he could not stand their happiness.

The more liberal, and superficially more thoughtful response, was that they hated us for supporting dictators who pillaged their nations and crushed their dreams, and those dictators had played a masterful con game on their own people. They convinced these angry young Muslims that Israel and its American ally were responsible for all their ills. 9/11 was a case of misdirected anger. The root evil was corrupt regimes, and America’s acquiescence to them.

Now, as we try and figure out why Faisal Shahzad packed a car full of combustibles and tried to attack his adopted country, we cannot afford to be so naive. It requires absolutely no imagination to come up with reasons why a Pakistani might want to take American lives. In the past we could always claim that Muslims who hated America did so because they did not understand us, or because they were misguided. Unfortunately, we have made our identity and our values appallingly clear.

The Obama administration has bombed Pakistan with impunity since taking office, and precious few elected officials or American citizens seem to care. Anonymous Pentagon spokesmen always claim that each drone strike kills “x number of militants,” as if we should not be concerned in the slightest that we might be terrorizing the civilian population of a country with which we are not at war by constantly bombarding it with missiles and bombs. We are told that the dead resulting from one of these strikes were all the enemy, but we have no way of knowing whether or not that is true. Our record in Afghanistan has hardly been confidence inspiring. The government is killing foreign citizens by remote, and offering no evidence to support its actions beyond, “Trust us.” As if credibility is something the military, intelligence, and foreign policy communities still possessed.

Drone strikes are merely the latest in a series of appalling accidents and intentional atrocities that have dogged our every step since 9/11, and at every turn public outrage has been muted. After 9/11 we heard so much about America’s tradition of tolerance, about the great respect American leaders had for that great religion, Islam, and how terrorists were evil for profaning its name. It was so important, as we sent troops into Afghanistan and prepared to send them into Iraq, that we make clear that we respected Islam and its practitioners. It was important that American Muslims not feel torn between their ethnic and religious identities on the one hand, and their civic identity on the other.

Then the Bush administration invaded Iraq on a mistaken assumption, and plunged the country into chaos and sectarian civil war. Evidence surfaced of sadistic detainee abuse. People suspected of being terrorists were swallowed up by the black-site prison system, basically kidnapped and sent somewhere to be tortured. The United States imprisoned people for years at Guantanamo Bay with scant evidence. Horrifying mistakes occurred, some of them caught on film like the Wikileaks video that came out several weeks ago, showing American troops killing civilians. American politicians routinely demand that terror suspects be stripped of their rights and treated like animals. A congressional candidate managed to win a major party primary after running one of the most horrifyingly racist ads I have ever seen.

What conclusions might an American Muslim reach when he sees firsthand how little anyone cares about Muslim lives, and how widespread and accepted anti-Muslim bigotry has become?

Nine years ago I wondered what B was thinking and feeling as he heard about his fellow Palestinians cheering and dancing as thousands of Americans perished. But now, I think I know. I don’t know how I would begin to look my Muslim friends in the eye. I certainly could not make the case that it was all a misunderstanding. They would know America far too well to fall for that.

But here is the thing: unless we start thinking about this stuff, unless we start pushing back against abuses committed in our name, and question the policies of a defense and foreign policy establishment that has blundered from one mistake to the next, we are going to fast reach a point where we are locked into a course that will antagonize Muslims at home and abroad. Because the moment “home-grown” Islamic terrorism ceases to be unusual, we will be unable to address any of the reasons why American Muslims might turn on the United States. An act of terrorism always confirms the policies that birthed it, because any retreat from those policies, no matter how counterproductive they might be, will be viewed as a victory for terrorists.

At that point, the cycle of violence is all but unbreakable. We kill in reprisal for our dead, and terrorists will step forward to kill in reprisal for theirs. That is the world in which we will grow old, and that is the world into which we will bring our children.

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.)