Hit and miss with Afghan air strikes
WASHINGTON - The present United States policy in Afghanistan of using air strikes to target local Taliban leaders was rejected by the top US commander in Afghanistan in early 2004 as certain to turn the broader population against the US presence.
Lieutenant General David Barno, the three-star general who commanded the Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, the overall US and coalition command for Afghanistan from October 2003 to mid-2005, recalled in an interview that he had ordered that such air strikes be halted in Afghanistan in early 2004. He said the decision did not prohibit air strikes for close support of US troops in contact with the Taliban.
Barno, now retired from the army and director of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, said he decided to stop the use of pre-targeted air strikes in early 2004 because the civilian casualties they caused were eroding the tolerance of the Afghan population for US military presence in the country.
"I felt that civilian casualties were strategically decoupling us from our objective," said Barno. "It caused blowback that undermined our cause."
But Barno said he had viewed the Afghan population's willingness to accept US troops in the country as a "bag of capital", which US forces were "spending too rapidly every time we caused civilian casualties with air power or knocked down doors or detained someone in front of their family".
After Barno left Afghanistan in 2005, air strikes aimed at killing local Taliban or al-Qaeda leaders resumed, and air strikes have come to be used routinely in military encounters with Taliban troops. The same tactic has also been used to target local al Qaeda leaders in northwest Pakistan.
US planes flew just 86 bombing missions in Afghanistan in all of 2004, but in 2007, the number of such air strikes had risen to nearly 3,000, according to US Air Forces Central Command figures.
The exponential rise in bombing continued in 2008. In the two months of June and July 2008 alone, the United States dropped nearly 600,000 pounds (272,727 kilograms) of bombs in Afghanistan - roughly equivalent to the total tonnage dropped in all of 2006 - according to statistics collected by Marc Gerlasco of Human Rights Watch.
US air strikes have generated a rapidly rising rate of civilian casualties, creating a political climate marked by increased anger toward the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military presence, according to many Afghan and foreign observers.
The worst case of civilian casualties was the killing by a C-130 gunship of as many as 95 civilians, including 50 children and 19 women, according to local tribal elders and Afghan government officials in the village of Azizabad in Herat province on August 22. The air attack came after US special forces had received intelligence that a Taliban commander was in Azizabad and had been unable to suppress it.
That incident followed two different air strikes in eastern Afghanistan in early July, in which 69 civilians were killed, including 47 people walking to a wedding party, according to Afghan officials.
Barno's successors have justified the vastly increased use of air strikes as necessary because of the small number of ground combat troops available in Afghanistan. In May 2007, a US military official told Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, "[W]ithout air, we'd need hundreds of thousands of troops."
One of the key considerations in convincing him to stop the use of pre-targeted air strikes, Barno recalled, was the tribal nature of Afghan society. "Whenever you cause civilian casualties, you are killing members of a tribe and spreading a widening circle of revenge-seeking."
Barno said that in his view, the use of air power was not an effective means of weakening the Taliban political-military organization in any case. The intelligence on Taliban targets, he said, "often turned out to be flat wrong".
The unreliability of human intelligence on Taliban targets was underlined by the killing of 95 civilians in Azizabad. Gall reported that tribal elders who had buried the dead said the US had received its intelligence on the target from a tribesman who had killed a rival tribal leader in Azizabad eight months earlier. Most of the civilians killed had traveled to Azizabad for a memorial ceremony to honor the dead tribal leader, according to Gall's story.
The tribal elders, as well as Afghan police and intelligence agency, said that not a single Taliban had been killed in the air strike.
Barno pointed out that even if local leaders had been killed in air strikes, it might not have significantly reduced the Taliban's capabilities. The Taliban organization was "like a starfish, not like a spider", Barno said. "Even if you killed the leadership - except for the very top guys - they would be quickly replaced."
"During my tenure, I was very concerned that if killing local Taliban leaders with air strikes produced civilian casualties, the tactical benefit would not offset the strategic damage it did to our cause," said Barno.
Although Barno said he believed the same principle would probably still apply in the present situation of dramatically increased Taliban strength, he refused to "second guess" US commanders who have adopted a different policy.
Barno believes, however, that US and NATO forces should focus more clearly on protecting the Afghan population, which he characterized as the "center of gravity" of the effort. In an article in Military Review last autumn, Barno observed that NATO and US military tactics "seem to convey the belief that the center of gravity is no longer the Afghan population and their security but the enemy".
Those changes from his strategic approach, he wrote, "in all likelihood do not augur well for the future of our policy goals in Afghanistan".
The retired general said he supported an increase in troops in Afghanistan, but he acknowledged that more troops may not bring about major reductions in air strikes, at least in the near term. "When you've got that tool in the tool box, there is a tendency to use it, even though at times it may put your strategic interest at risk."
According to John Burns, writing in Sunday's New York Times, senior US and British officers in Kabul briefed reporters last week on a new directive from the top US commander, General David McKiernan, to field commanders applying the more restrictive NATO policy on air strikes previously to US forces under his command. The NATO policy imposes tighter conditions on air strikes but does not rule out either pre-targeted or tactical combat strikes.
The US and British officers acknowledged that the directive would not apply to American special operations forces in Afghanistan, which are not under McKiernan's command. As Gall reported in May 2003 on an earlier incident in the same district, many of the worst cases of civilian deaths from pre-targeted strikes involved special operations forces.
Even as the briefing on the new directive was taking place, according to Burns, yet another US air strike - this time in Helmand province, killed larger numbers of civilians. The air strike destroyed three houses, killing between 25 and 30 civilians, mostly women and children, according to Afghan accounts reported by Burns. The NATO command confirmed the strike and said it would investigate.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.