Fears of Blowback Nixed Airstrikes in 2004
WASHINGTON - The present U.S.
policy in Afghanistan of using airstrikes to target local Taliban
leaders was rejected by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan in early
2004 as certain to turn the broader population against the U.S.
Lt. Gen. David Barno, the three-star general who
commanded the Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, the overall U.S. and
coalition command for Afghanistan from October 2003 to mid-2005,
recalled in an interview that he had ordered that such airstrikes be
halted in Afghanistan in early 2004. He said he the decision did not
prohibit airstrikes for close support of U.S. troops in contact with
Gen. Barno, now retired from the Army and director of the Near
East South Asia Centre for Strategic Studies at the National Defence
University, said he decided to stop the use of pre-targeted airstrikes
in early 2004 because the civilian casualties they caused were eroding
the tolerance of the Afghan population for U.S. military presence in
"I felt that civilian casualties were strategically decoupling us from
our objective," said Barno. "It caused blowback that undermined our
But Barno said he had viewed the Afghan population's willingness to
accept U.S. troops in the country as a "bag of capital", which U.S.
forces were "spending too rapidly every time we caused civilian
casualties with airpower or knocked down doors or detained someone in
front of their family."
After Barno left Afghanistan in 2005, airstrikes aimed at killing local
Taliban or al Qaeda leaders resumed, and airstrikes 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
U.S. planes flew just 86 bombing missions in Afghanistan in
all of 2004, but in 2007, the number of such airstrikes had risen to
nearly 3,000, according to U.S. 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 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.
U.S. airstrikes have generated a rapidly rising rate of civilian
casualties, creating a political climate marked by increased anger
toward the U.S. and 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 Aug. 22. The air attack came
after U.S. Special Forces had gotten intelligence that a Taliban
commander was in Azizabad and had been unable to suppress it.
That incident followed two different airstrikes 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
airstrikes as necessary because of the small number of ground combat
troops available in Afghanistan. In May 2007, a U.S. 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 airstrikes, 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
Barno said that in his view, the use of airpower was not an effective
means of weakening the Taliban political-military organisation 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. Carlotta Gall of
the New York Times reported that tribal elders who had buried the dead
said the U.S. had gotten 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 honour the dead tribal leader, according to Gall's
The tribal elders, as well as Afghan police and intelligence agency,
said that not a single Taliban had been killed in the airstrike.
Barno pointed out that even if local leaders had been killed in
airstrikes, it might not have significantly reduced the Taliban's
capabilities. The Taliban organisation 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 airstrikes produced civilian casualties, the tactical
benefit would not offset the strategic damage it did to our cause,"
Although Barno said he believes the same principle would probably still
apply in the present situation of dramatically increased Taliban
strength, he refused to "second guess" U.S. commanders who have adopted
a different policy.
Barno believes, however, that U.S. and NATO forces should focus more
clearly upon protecting the Afghan population, which he characterised
as the "centre of gravity" of the effort. In an article in "Military
Review" last fall, Barno observed that NATO and U.S. military tactics
"seem to convey the belief that the centre 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
The retired three-star general said he supports an increase in troops
in Afghanistan. But he acknowledged that more troops may not bring
about major reductions in airstrikes, at least in the near term. "When
you've got that tool in the tool box," said Barno, "there is a tendency
to use it, even though at times it may put your strategic interest at
According to John Burns, writing in Sunday's New York Times, senior
U.S. and British officers in Kabul briefed reporters last week on a new
directive from the top U.S. commander, Gen. David McKiernan, to field
commanders applying the more restrictive NATO policy on airstrikes
previously to U.S. forces under his command. The NATO policy imposes
tighter conditions on airstrikes but does not rule out either
pre-targeted or tactical combat airstrikes.
The U.S. 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 Carlotta 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
Even as the briefing on the new directive was taking place, according
to Burns, yet another U.S. airstrike -- this time in Helmand Province,
killed larger numbers of civilians. The airstrike 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.