Saturday, June 13, 2009

Our Air Force Defeated

The use of air power in Afghanistan pales in comparison to our use of air power at the height of fighting in Iraq. And even with our surge in Afghanistan, our use of air power wouldn't come close to matching that usage. The Afghans seem far more sensitive to civilian casualties than Iraqis ever were during the fight.

Our Taliban enemies, with a local press bribed, bullied, or befriended by the Taliban--and amplified by an ignorant Western press that neither undestands military matters nor cares to make the effort to understand--have succeeded in making civilian casualties a major issue in the fight. We are promising to work on reducing our use of air power:

Gates emphasized the imperative of avoiding civilian casualties, calling the deaths "one of our greatest strategic vulnerabilities." In his few public comments, McChrystal also has highlighted the problem.

McChrystal says he intends to run a classic counterinsurgency campaign. That means another of his key objectives will be to create distance between local Afghans and the hardcore Taliban fighters in order to win local support and gain better intelligence.

And he will aim to make better use of nonmilitary tools such as U.S. and other foreign civilian resources to improve basic government services.

Robert Scales, a retired Army two-star general who has advised U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, said in an interview Friday that he believes McChrystal will focus mainly on shifting emphasis from killing Taliban and al-Qaida fighters to protecting Afghans from those fighters — and from unintended U.S. bombings.

"The metric has changed. The metric is no longer how much territory in Afghanistan do we control, but how effective are we in securing the people," Scales said. "Not how many bad guys do we kill or how many American casualties do we suffer, but how few Afghans are killed — by both the bad guys and by us."

Which is amazing. We are very careful with our air power and vast majority of the civilian casualties are the fault of the Taliban. It is spectacularly unfair that we are the chief target of criticism in the war:

Always remember, civilian casualties are the point of enemy attacks. Civilian casualties are something we try to avoid even if it poses some risks to our troops. By the bizarre logic of the world, our failure to be perfect is something to condemn even as our enemies get a free pass on their behavior that intentionally kills civilians.

Yet we will do what we need to do in the area of restricting our use of air power rather than whine about the unfairness of hobbling our air power. That's the smart thing to do. In the long run we lose more troops if the Afghans reject our presence than we will lose due to more restricted air support.

Frustrating, to be sure, but smart. COIN isn't a firepower-centric fight.