When Gen. David Petraeus took command of the Afghan war effort a year ago, his officers insisted that there was no way he’d go back to the bad old days of bombing the country from the sky. This was a counterinsurgency campaign, they said; winning over the population was way more important than nailing any target. Airstrikes would be solely a “tactic of last resort,” as one general told Danger Room, used only if ground troops “cannot withdraw.”
A year later: never mind. The air war is back, according to U.S. military statistics, and in a major way. During Petraeus’ year on the job, coalition warplanes fired their weapons and dropped their bombs on 5,831 sorties. It’s a 65 percent increase from the 3,510 attack runs flown in the previous 12 months. And there’s no sign of a let-up. There were 554 lethal flights in June, compared to about 450 each in June of 2009 and 2008.
It’s yet another sign that the “population-centric” counterinsurgency strategy, popularized by Petraeus and executed almost too faithfully by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is being phased out in Afghanistan. Instead, the focus is on taking individual militants off the battlefield; “counterterrorism,” in military parlance. That means night raids by Special Operations Forces, 1,700 in the last year alone. That means death from above. And as the Obama team starts bringing troops home, expect this all to continue — especially in volatile eastern Afghanistan.
Sure, 33,000 ground troops are supposed to come home by next September. But the number of Special Operations Forces will likely grow. And the warplanes – they’re staying, too. . . .