Iraq-Afghanistan: Overlooking the Air War

WASHINGTON - On Jun. 18, seven children were killed during a U.S.-led air strike against a suspected al Qaeda sanctuary in eastern Afghanistan. Three days later, at least 25 civilians died during a similar "incident" in Helmand province in the south of the country.

The same day, a U.S. air strike aimed at a house in the Iraqi town of Baquba accidentally hit a different structure, wounding 11 civilians. The Pentagon is currently investigating the errant strike.The above "incidents" are part and parcel of warfare, initially denied, later called "accidents", rationalized as "collateral damage", regularly "under investigation", and always "regrettable".

Yet as U.S. President George W. Bush's "surge" policy ebbs in the quagmire of Iraq, and the U.S.-led NATO force struggles to maintain order in Afghanistan, increasing calls in Congress and among the U.S. public for a gradual withdrawal of combat troops may result in an escalation of the use of air power.

As Tom Engelhardt, the essayist of, writes, "Barring an unexpected change of policy, some version of this list of 'errant' incidents, multiplied many times over, is likely to represent the future of both Afghanistan and Iraq."

Compared to the sensational suicide attacks that lead the nightly news -- a truck bombing in Amerli, north of Baghdad, killed more than 150 civilians over the weekend, making it one of the deadliest single bombings since the 2003 invasion -- air strikes remain a rudimentary aspect of war, and rarely make the headlines. When they do, they are often buried deep in the story.

Aerial warfare is euphemistically referred to as "surgical" or "precise" so as to diminish the awesome and devastating power of 2,000-pound bombs being dropped from the sky.

It was implemented decisively during the early stages of the 2001 war in Afghanistan, when the U.S. provided air support for the Northern Alliance as it routed the Taliban from power.

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. military commanders incorporated a "shock and awe" strategy, designed to bombard the Iraqi military with such immense force it would quickly submit and bring about a swift defeat.

But as the U.S.-led coalition struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq, aerial bombardments have received increasing attention, not for their pinpoint accuracy so much as for the number of civilians killed during the expanding bombing sorties.

The Afghan government, human rights groups, and humanitarian aid organisations say that more than 300 civilians have died this year as a result of Western operations, mostly when air power was called in to help allied troops in trouble, according to a recent report from Reuters.

"We are looking closely at our air operations, but it would not be something we would be looking to change at this point," International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Maria Carl told reporters in Kabul in late June.

This was "mostly from the standpoint that air offers us the opportunity to cover a lot more (of) that ground that we can't do with a limited number of troops at that moment," she said.

Almost six years after the U.S.-led invasion, frequent troop shortages, as well as an aversion to allied troop casualties, have forced military commanders to increase their dependence on air power to defeat insurgents.

Yet, the Afghan death toll as a result of air strikes continues to rise.

On Jul. 2, 45 civilians were killed during a NATO-led air assault in Hydererbad, in the south of Afghanistan, compelling President Hamid Karzai to publicly call for an investigation into the incident.

While Karzai has condemned the Taliban for using human shields, he has also said the foreign soldiers consider Afghan lives "cheap".

Four years after the Bush administration's "shock and awe" campaign that was supposed to kill Saddam Hussein and bring peace to Iraq failed to accomplish what was intended, U.S. warplanes have increased attacks again, dropping bombs at more than twice the rate as the previous year, according to a recent report by the Associated Press.

So far this year, U.S. warplanes have dropped 237 bombs and missiles in support of Coalition ground troops in Iraq, exceeding the 229 dropped in all of 2006, according to U.S. Air Force figures obtained by the AP in the same report.

If the bombing trend is any indication, a U.S. troop withdrawal or "drawdown" will most likely be accompanied by an even greater reliance on airpower, a precedent that was set during the Vietnam war, when then-President Richard Nixon announced his "Vietnamization" policy.

Under the plan, South Vietnam was to be supplied with arms, equipment, and military advisers while the U.S. force withdrew. During the same period, Nixon authorized mass bombing runs into Laos and Cambodia, as well as the war's largest bombing campaign, Operation Proud Deep, in which U.S. B-52 bombers and other jet bombers flew more than 1,000 sorties into North Vietnam.

Even before Nixon came to office, prominent Lyndon Johnson administration adviser Samuel Huntington -- who is most famous for his controversial "Clash of Civilizations" thesis -- justified the heavy bombardment of the South Vietnam countryside as a way to drive the peasants who supported the Viet Cong into urban areas.

By directly applying "mechanical and conventional power" on a massive scale so as to compel a massive migration from the countryside to cities, Huntington theorised that the Vietnamese would be less likely to support a Communist agrarian revolution.

In the changing landscape of 21st century warfare, a technologically superior U.S. military has been forced to adapt its strategy to combat counter-insurgency tactics. Guerrilla warfare is waged on city streets, often amidst civilian populations. Hence, air power can never be an effective substitute for ground fighting.

This was witnessed during the 2006 war between Israel and the Islamist resistance group Hezbollah. During a four-week period, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) relentlessly bombed Lebanon, destroying much of the country's infrastructure in the process. But the objective of the IDF's massive use of air power -- to permanently eliminate the threat of Hezbollah -- was never accomplished.

"Military historians have a name for the logic behind Israel's military campaign in Lebanon. It's called 'strategic bombing fallacy,'" wrote Brookings Institution fellow Philip H. Gordon, in an op-ed in the Washington Post during the 2006 war.

"Far from bringing about the intended softening of the opposition, bombing tends to rally people behind their own leaders and cause them to dig in against outsiders who, whatever the justification, are destroying their homeland," he wrote.

As the U.S. public's tolerance for troop casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan steadily shrinks, the Bush administration finds itself in a precarious situation. Reliance on airpower and the cumulative effect of errant bombs portends an ominous future for U.S. political goals in the region.

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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