| Ander Nieuws week 46 / Midden-Oosten 2010 |
Bombs away: Afghan air war peaks with 1,000 strikes in October

November 10, 2010
Noah Shachtman
The U.S. and its allies have unleashed a massive air campaign in Afghanistan, launching missiles and bombs from the sky at a rate rarely seen since the war's earliest days. In October alone, NATO planes fired their weapons on 1,000 separate missions, U.S. Air Force statistics provided to Danger Room show. Since Gen. David Petraeus took command of the war effort in late June, coalition aircraft have flown 2,600 attack sorties. That's 50% more than they did during the same period in 2009. Not surprisingly, civilian casualties are on the rise, as well.
NATO officials say the increase in air attacks is simply a natural outgrowth of a more aggressive campaign to push militants out of their strongholds in southern Afghanistan. "Simply put, our air strikes have increased because our operations have increased. We've made a concentrated effort in the south to clear out the insurgency and therefore have increased our number of troops on the ground and aircraft to support them in this effort," Lt. Nicole Schwegman, a NATO spokesperson, tells Danger Room.
On the other hand, some outside observers believe the strikes are part of an attempt to soften up the insurgency before negotiations with them begin in earnest. But one thing is clear: it's a strategy Petraeus has used before. Once he took over the Iraq war effort, air strikes jumped nearly sevenfold.
Next month, the Obama administration is set to review the strategy for the Afghanistan campaign. Petraeus' newly-aggressive approach will almost certainly part of that examination. It's a dramatic reversal from Gen. Stanley McChrystal's strategy, which drastically restricted the use of air power — even when troops came under fire.
But the new general is doing more than launching an expanded air war. He's also unleashing special operations forces to go after militants on the ground. According to Petraeus' team, those commandos conducted more than 1,500 operations in 90 days ending October 21. 339 insurgent leaders were killed or captured, as were 3,444 militant footsoldiers.
The ultimate goal of this aggression, ironically, may be a peace deal. The New York Times' Dexter Filkins is one of several veteran observers of the war that sees the push as "a coordinated effort by American commanders to bleed the insurgency and pressure its leaders to negotiate an end to the war."
But in the meantime, more innocents are getting caught in the cross-fire. Schwegman emails Danger Room that "while our air strikes have gone up, our incident rate of causing civilian casualties has actually decreased. As you know, our main principle in our counterinsurgency strategy is to protect the civilian population first and foremost."
According to NATO statistics, however, 49 by-standers were killed or wounded by coalition forces last month, compared to 38 last October. It's an increase of 30%. The militants' civilian toll has gone up at a similar rate. But the insurgents have been far more ruthless, far more callous about innocent life. They killed or wounded 322 civilians last month — four times as many as the coalition.
NATO has escalated its air campaign in Afghanistan before — most notably in the early summer of 2008, when coalition aircraft went on 2,366 attack missions. But each rise has been followed by a dip, often because the civilian costs of the air operations grew too high. In 2004, for example, then-commander Gen. David Barno halted all pre-planned air operations after a number of the strikes went awry, slaying innocents. "I was very concerned that if killing local Taliban leaders with airstrikes produced civilian casualties, the tactical benefit would not offset the strategic damage it did to our cause," Barno later said. After U.S. aircraft killed as many as 97 civilians in a single incident in May 2009, McChrystal imposed his tight guidelines on air power. Whether a similar constriction will happen after this current air campaign remains to be seen. © 2010 Condé Nast Digital. All rights reserved.
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| Ander Nieuws week 46 / Midden-Oosten 2010 |