The Air War in Afghanistan: The Broader Issue
May 15, 2009
The growing anger over the civilian casualties caused by US and NATO/ISAF air strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan poses a major challenge for the US and its allies in the fighting the war. It also involves a series of very real human tragedies. It does, however, need to be kept in careful perspective, as it raises issues that go far beyond the use of air strikes and affect the overall pattern of operations in the conflict.
The Burke Chair at CSIS has prepared a briefing that attempts to summarize the key issues involved. This briefing is entitled “The Afghan-Pakistan War: Casualties, the Air War, and “Clear, Hold, Build.” It is available on the CSIS web site at http://www.csis.org/files/publication/090515_af_pak_air_war.pdf.
This briefing has inevitable limitations. Many of the key metrics are lacking, are disputed, are unreliable, or provide partial counts. The briefing is broadly reliable, however, in showing how the overall rise in violence in Iraq -- as estimated by NATO/ISAF and the UN -- compares to the rising patterns in air strikes and the use of air munitions. It also shows how badly the Afghan War has been resourced in past years in terms of spending, NATO/ISAF force levels, and efforts to create Afghan forces.
There is no way to made a direct quantitative correlation, but the brief also shows that this combination of the rising threat of Jihadist attacks, and inadequate forces and resources, has made the US and its allies increasingly dependent on air power and led to rises in the estimated civilian fatalities resulting from direct military action. This has occurred in spite of systematic attempts on the part of the US and NATO/ISAF to reduce these casualties – which are also documented in the briefing.
The briefing also helps to illustrate several key issues shaping the future of the war:
- First, the casualty estimates now available from the US and NATO/ISAF show that air strikes do cause significant civilian deaths, but also that they are only a limited part of a total count driven largely by Taliban and other Jihadist actions. This illustrates a key tactical reality. Afghan suffering is not measured in terms of any one source of casualties, and the fact that air strikes often produce clearly defined incidents does not mean they should be the focus of concern. Other forms of violence have a far more cumulative effect, and rules of engagement which limit air strikes too much – without regard to the overall pattern of casualties – can weaken NATO/ISAF and Afghan government forces to the point where net fatalities increase and Taliban and Jihadist control expands more rapidly.
- Second, the casualty estimates now available from the US, NATO/ISAF, the UN and organizations like Human Rights Watch are large counts of civilian facilities in combat. They do not come close to total casualties or measures of human suffering. They do not include wounded. They ignore many non-kinetic casualties and kinds of violence ranging from the Taliban killing of village leaders and kidnappings to extortion and intimation. The polling data provided in the briefing are a warning to the US and NATO/ISAF that Afghans deeply resent both air strikes and all forms of US combat activity that produce fatalities, but the same polling data highlight the permeating levels of violence caused by the Taliban and its allies – even in areas largely under their control.
- Third, all of these data have to be interpreted in the context of what have become systematic Taliban and Jihadi efforts to manipulate and exaggerate the impact of air and UCAV strikes- and all NATO/ISAF military activity- and to use civilian casualties as a propaganda weapon. At the same time, the use of human shields and collocated families of fighters has become a key form of defense. There is no way to quantify the scale of such activity, but asymmetric war is fought at the political and propaganda level, and by seeking to shape enemy actions by denying the enemy its most effective tactics.
- Fourth, the attack counts and the casualty estimates available to date focus largely on the areas where direct military clashes take place involving US/NATO/ISAF and ANA/ANP against Taliban and other Jihadist forces. At the brief shows, these are also the areas where most air strikes are concentrated. The UN maps included in the briefing, however, show that Taliban and other Jihadist threats and influence cover a vastly greater part of the country than the 11-13% that is the focus of most actual fighting. It quotes the UN Secretary General as noting that roughly 175 of the country’s 400 districts (44%) are now outside government control, problematic, or difficult and that the number that are totally inaccessible could rise from 10 to 40.
- Fifth, the polling data do not directly compare the cases where NATO/ISAF has provided lasting security after the combat or “clear” phase of operations. They do, however, suggest that one of the key lessons of counterinsurgency operations does apply. Air strikes and all forms of “kinetic” activity that do not create lasting security for the population are unpopular and produce anger and resentment. No one wants to be a repeated battlefield. Attitudes seem to differ sharply, however, in those areas where NATO/ISAF and Afghan forces have been strong enough to bring lasting security and particularly where this has been followed by government and aid activity that provides services and economic security as well. This is a key reason for the shift to the “clear, hold, build” strategy announced by President Obama in March, for the US reinforcement of its forces, and for the sharp rise in the effort to create effective Afghan forces. In practice, the issue is not airpower or any means of combat. It is whether force is used to lasting effect in protecting and benefiting the Afghan population.
- Sixth, the level of Afghan resentment and anger, and lack of confidence in NATO/ISAF and the Afghan government, has not yet reached the crisis point. The polling trends are sufficiently negative, however, so it is clear that 2009 and 2010 are critical years, and the effort to move beyond tactical victories (clear), provide lasting security for the population (hold), and services and economic security (build) is critical in ways that go far beyond the impact of air strikes.
- Seventh, Afghan polls confirm two other, related lessons regarding counterinsurgency and the use force – whether air strikes or another other form of kinetic activity. Being able to take the initiative with adequate time to plan in ways that meet both tactical needs and consider the population is critical. This requires the kind of intelligence and secure base of operations that is part of the “hold” phase, as well as the kind of human intelligence (HUMINT) that can only come from a presence on the ground and working ties to the local population. Air power is a dangerous and sometimes counterproductive substitute for ground power and adequate intelligence – although insufficient ground power can just as easily lead to excessive reliance on artillery, poorly target raids, or repressive security measures. Air power is a critical force multiplier in properly planned and resourced joint operations.
- Finally, Afghan polls reinforce the lessons of Iraq and Pakistan that any war that seeks to win the support of the population must seek to build up effective local forces as soon as possible. Afghans place far more trust in the Army and a still ineffective police than the best NATO/ISAF forces. This makes creating effective Afghan security forces, and deploying the require number of embedded advisors, partner units, and enablers critical to limiting civilian casualties, improving intelligence, and the effective use of both US and NATO/ISAF air and ground forces.
No brief that assembles today’s uncertain metrics can address all of these issues in the proper depth or with anything like the reliability that is needed to put the tragedy of civilian casualties in perspective and show that the new US strategy of “clear, hold, build” can produce decisive results that will provide a net reduction in casualties and human suffering or lasting victory. As a result, the brief shows the different perspective of organizations like Human Rights Watch and its concern with the need to take additional steps to ensure that airpower is used in ways that limit civilian casualties.
Any detailed review of the brief, however, should show the need to look far beyond air strikes and examine the overall direction of the war, and to view human suffering in broader and more valid terms. Such an examination must include far better estimates of the level of suffering caused by the Taliban and its supporters, the risks of letting Taliban propaganda and use of human shields drive the course of the fighting, and the need to properly resource “clear, hold, build.”