Have The Taliban Defeated U.S. Air Power?

An op-ed in today’s New York Times claims that the Taliban have defeated American air power because of Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s directive restricting artillery and air strikes to avoid civilian casualties. The author, Lara Dadkhah, identified as an intelligence analyst with a defense consulting firm (you can’t swing a dead cat and not hit one of those in this town), argues that restricting bombing runs puts troops at unnecessary risk and prolongs the war, and hence the inevitable civilian casualties, because if we’re not bombing the Taliban we’re not killing them fast enough.

“In Marja, American and Afghan troops have shown great skill in routing the Taliban occupiers. But news reports indicate that our troops under heavy attack have had to wait an hour or more for air support, so that insurgents could be positively identified. “We didn’t come to Marja to destroy it, or to hurt civilians,” a Marine officer told reporters after waiting 90 minutes before the Cobra helicopters he had requested showed up with their Hellfire missiles. He’s right that the goal is not to kill bystanders or destroy towns, but an overemphasis on civilian protection is now putting American troops on the defensive in what is intended to be a major offensive.

Logic dictates that no well-ordered army would give up its advantages and expect to win, and the United States military, which does not have the manpower in Afghanistan to fight the insurgents one-on-one, is no exception.”

This is a familiar argument made for a long time now by air power enthusiasts, most prominently by Air Force Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap, who believe dropping more bombs can win counterinsurgency wars. There are a lot of holes in Dadkhah’s op-ed. To begin with, American troops are not on the defensive, that’s hyperbolic nonsense.

The real doozy, though, is this one:

“So in a modern refashioning of the obvious — that war is harmful to civilian populations — the United States military has begun basing doctrine on the premise that dead civilians are harmful to the conduct of war. The trouble is, no past war has ever supplied compelling proof of that claim.”

Really? How about the Soviet-Afghan war where the Soviet’s indiscriminate bombing campaign that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians served as a huge recruiting tool for the mujahedin. Dadkhah should read up on her history.

How about a more recent example. The Haqqani network in eastern Afghanistan is considered to be our most lethal adversary in this war and Haqqani fighters have launched some of the most costly attacks against U.S. troops.

Here is what Afghan expert Thomas Ruttig, who knows of what he speaks, writes about Jalaluddin Haqqani, considered by CIA officers in the 1980s as the “most impressive Pashtun battlefield commander,” in the excellent book, Decoding the New Taliban:

“Today, Haqqani’s fight might be increasingly motivated by feelings of revenge. During various bombing raids and predator drone attacks against his houses and madrasas, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, starting in early 2002 and with the latest strike on 23 October 2008 on his madrasa in Danday Darkhapel near Miramshah, many of his family members, among them women and infants, and students lost their lives.”

McChrystal, in guidance issued to ISAF troops (.pdf file), explained the calculation in counterinsurgency, and any wars amongst the people for that matter, as follows:

“From a conventional standpoint, the killing of two insurgents in a group of ten leaves eight remaining: 10 - 2 = 8. From the insurgent standpoint, those two killed were likely related to many others who will want vengeance. If civilian casualties occurred, that number will be much higher. Therefore, the death of two creates more willing recruits: 10 minus 2 equals 20 (or more) rather than 8.”

Former British intelligence officer Andrew Garfield, who periodically works in Afghanistan, explained to me the issue of civilian casualties by using an example from his own country’s history. In Ireland, thousands protest every year to commemorate 1972’s “Bloody Sunday,” where British paras opened fire on a civilian crowd, killing thirteen. That incident left lasting scars that have still not healed to this day, he said. Why would we not expect similar feelings among civilians today in cultures where revenge is a guiding principle of life?

The other thing that bothers me about this op-ed is that those who advocate a stepped up use of air and artillery strikes in Afghanistan treat it as a binary choice: either American troops bomb insurgents or they let them get away. There is, of course, another choice: ground troops firing and maneuvering to close with and kill or capture the insurgents.

Granted, that course of action puts more American troops at direct risk in close-in firefights with Taliban fighters. But it’s probably a more precise application of firepower than dropping bombs on houses and reduces the chances that McChrystal’s equation will come into play and more, rather than less, insurgents will be produced.

Update: The always readable Joshua Foust over at Registan.net weighs in.

— Greg

  • James

    But that’s the real kicker, fearless. Civilians have taken no solemn oath to fight for their country, nor have they signed their names to accept the risks that soldiers do.

  • USMC Fearless

    True but should the powers at be of the nations involved in the war be more concerened about civilians or the men and women under there command whose lives are directly controlled by them? I’m just saying as an American and a Marine the lives of our men and women should take priority. I am by no means saying we shouldn’t care about civilian lives but the lives of the men on the ground should always come first in a decision where either they live or the civilians live.

    • TMB

      Scenario: We bomb the wrong house and kill a handful of civilians but save a friendly squad today. The rest of the family joins the Taliban and a month later they’ve laid enough IEDs to kill a platoon worth of Soldiers. Have we put the lives of our Soldiers first? Just food for thought.

      • Project Thor

        These “civilians” were told to get out… they know the risks. The rules of engagement have tied one of our hands behind our backs so it has to be the ol’ fashion way of doing this… house to house, up close & personal.

        “Fix bayonets, boys!”

      • USMC Fearless

        I’m not saying don’t ID targets but taking up to an hour? by then the enemy as almost defiantly moved and men on the ground could have been killed, I am in no way advocating a shoot first policy before knowing what you’re shooting but the fog of war is thick and what you’re saying isn’t a guaranteed scenario not all families that lose people in the war are gonna go join the Taliban but not letting air support in would almost surely get our men killed.

        • Olaf Slokes

          The civilians in Marjah weren’t told to leave, they were told to stay indoors–check your “facts.” If American soldiers and marines aren’t willing to die for the mission, they should have chosen another line of work. Killing local civilians in order to preserve our forces is the exact prescription to losing a fourth generation war.

  • Tim

    We are doing the right thing in Marja. It is not a 1-1 fight but a 4-1 in our favour. We can not win the war if we keep obliterate everything on our way.

  • Solomon

    Your last paragraph answers the question. The Taliban haven’t defeated US air power.

    Our own rules of engagement did.

  • ed!

    US forces have had an over-reliance on fire support for a long time now. This inherent ability to quickly reach out and touch someone with accurate fire has worked well in conventional wars, where we can see who the enemy is. This is Counterinsurgency. This is not a war in a conventional sense. Remember Vietnam everyone. A quote was once said that goes “An airstrike into North Vietnam killed a farmer’s buffalo and he became angry. A later airstrike killed his wife and daughter, and now he became a VC/NVA. We must remember that the civilians here don’t have much choice of who to support. If they have no gun they will quietly listen and do what they are told.

    • ed!

      We tried to bomb our enemy and out-tech them in Iraq and it nearly cost us the entire thing. We tried doing the same in A-Stan. We must fight this house to house and tribe to tribe in order to win this.

    • KS1

      Your comments about not fighting a conventional war is one of the key elements here. The media is not reporting fair and unbiased, the accent is often on the civilian deaths. I wonder if they count the civilians the Taliban and it’s entities use as a shield? Or Taliban soldiers and or supporters who shoot rocket fired grenades form rooftops in a crowed civilian community from their roof tops? It would seem Jihad can justify killing their neighbors and even relatives if they don’t believe as they do, so what are infidel soldiers to them? Every U.S. or Coalition force soldier, and any armed civilains helping our soldiers should be defanately honored. Although death is death, no more or less painful for any loved one on any side of the conflict. I commend the courage of our slodiers, and definately feel for the sacrifices I know are happening beyond my civilian comprehention. I thank you and bless you, because I can’t become a soldier, though many of my family has been. Death is death for anyone.

  • edward

    Not the best example. Bloody Sunday didn’t have such an impact because 13 people died. It has a lasting cultural imprint due to centuries of violent conflict between the English and Irish. Bloody Sunday was just a good focal point for that anger. My Great Grandpa hated the English (something about potatoes I believe) long before Bloody Sunday.

    And if our government killing foreigners causes them to hate us … what happens when our government lets our own soldiers die to protect foreigners. They might want to think that one through too.

    You can lose legitimacy at home as well as abroad.

  • DaveD

    Great piece Greg! Lara Dadkah is off base in terms of arguing that it will end the war faster. This century-old doctrine/idea (Douhet’s) that you can bomb people into submission has yet to be proved in any war since the idea emerged. Sure, you can certainly disrupt, create fear, maybe some panic, but it is short-term. Keep in mind at the height of allies’ bombing of “strategic” targets (WW II), Germany was able to keep pace, and, in many instances, increase production of the war machines.

    My point, IF we believe for one moment that a “victory” in A-stan includes “winning the hearts and minds,” then you need to commit to that mission while understanding the risks. While I’m not saying that we shouldn’t protect our warriors, I am saying that it is a tough mission that will take time, patience, and more casualties (on all sides). It is a long-term mission that may stabilize the region and at minimum remove some “evil doers” from at least one Middle Eastern country. If we really want to reduce these casualties, put more warriors in the field and get this done sooner than later.

  • TMB

    As Greg pointed out, the Soviets weren’t afraid of using their big stick and killed hundreds of thousands and not only did the Afghans not surrender but their fighting ranks swelled. If applying more airpower is supposed to win the war, what’s the magic number? Killing thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions?

  • WJS

    Slightly off example though. The Soviets had essentially beat the Afghans until U.S. technology, support, and money was applied via Pakistan. Had that not happened the Afghans would have been relegated to starving in the mountains. Not saying that anything the Soviets did was good just saying that they had rendered the Afghans impotent until we stepped in.

  • Dick

    We need mature, professionals in Afghanistan. If you don’t like the ROE, you need to put down your rifle, take off your helmet, and go home.

    The mission in COIN is to protect the population, not to kill the insurgents.

    If MS-13 invaded your local 7-11 and held the cashier hostage, would you be happy if LA SWAT dropped JDAMS on the store? I think not. Instead, we expect our security forces (police) to understand that their mission is public safety first, and pursue criminals with judicial firepower.

    As an occupation force, we are the police by default. Our reluctance to realize that fact hindered our efforts in Iraq for the entire Rumsfeld regime. Now that that horrible era of ignorance is past, we need to grow up and learn to conduct COIN and occupations effectively as adults, and accept all the risks and dangers that entails with the courage necessary to be successful. The sophomoric amateurs who pine for the good ole days when we could fire bomb Dresden are not helpful.

    • DaveD

      Well stated

    • James

      Exactly.

    • pleuris

      Good comment!

    • YeahYeahYeah

      This sir, is the same old, same old; one size fits all; PC mentality that dominates Washington today (which gets nothing done).

  • GI Joe

    Man. I wish I could get paid for blathering such drivel. One of the worst pieces of professional writing I’ve ever seen. Ill-thought, un-thought, unsupportable garbage.

  • Tom

    Folks –

    We’re not talking about calling in a B2 to do carpet combing here. We’re talking about calling in a Cobra helicopter with targeted hellfire missiles. Someone explain to me why it should take 90 minutes to have that called in. That’s the point. I think it’s very clear that our Marines are refraining from overusing power. While her article has some holes in logic, don’t toss the baby out with the bath water.

  • Tad

    The Strategic Bombing Survey of 1947 showed that the will to resist of nations whose cities were bombed increased because of the bombing. That includes Germany, England, Japan, … The only situation where this will to resist did not increase was after the atomic bombs were dropped.

  • Warrior Spirit

    Strategic Bombing…Douhet…way to completely miss the reality of US air support in this age. Get real people.

    Tom is dead on – we are talking about precision ordnance being called in on point targets – these delusions about “firebombing Dresden” and other WWII era-mass bombing analogies are extremely stupid.

    • Guffaw

      The reality of precision ordnance is that a 500 lb guided munition is still overkill and still too distressingly likely to kill the wrong folks. Perhaps we need to cultivate a true light infantry that needn't rely on calling in heavy support every five seconds. Look what the enemy is able to do with superior infiltration tactics alone!

      • Tom

        Again, your comment is a perfect example of how this discussion plummets into senseless dribble drabble. 500 Lb.guided munitions being called in every 5 seconds???

        Either you have no clue of what is going on over there or you don’t want the facts to get in the way of your argument.

        Which is it? Unfortunately, it’s probably both.

        • Guffaw

          It’s called hyperbole, sir. It’s a rhetorical device that signifies one’s words are not meant to be taken literally while giving a sense of one’s position, regardless. Have you ever attended an institution of higher learning?

          One last attempt to dispel your apparent density: Our forces are too reliant on calling in heavy support fires, which frequently cause casualties to innocent civilians. Harming innocent civilians is especially damaging to our stated goals in the current conflicts. The solution is not to err on the side of protecting our forces at the expense of civilian casualties, though our overwhelming firepower certainly makes that appealing to armchair generals stateside, yourself included.

      • Warrior Spirit

        The US military of the 21st Century has quite a dilemma, though Guffaw – Light Infantry tactics are high risk, which means a shift in the winds of fortune leaves you with a lot of dead Marines or soldiers. The US press doesn’t support wars that produce US KIAs, so the ONLY solution to fight, keep friendly casualties low, and still be effective, is advanced fire support.

        You can’t have it both ways.

        • Guffaw

          You lay out the perfect false dichotomy, congratulations. We agree, light infantry tactics will cost us more blood and treasure, yet they are the only prescription to actually succeeding in the current conflict. But you set up a red herring–blaming the press, how convenient is that–instead of pointing the finger at the public (who lack the will), our procurement priorities (lacking the proper tools for the job), our lack of training in small unit tactics (which means another round of find, fix, and call in the heavy stuff), etc. Your “only solution” is destined to lose us this war…so how is that a solution at all?

          • Warrior Spirit

            Destined to lose us this war – you remember those words, you WILL be eating them.

            There is no false dichotomy – fire support saves lives that pure infantry fighting causes. That is a simple fact. It is also a fact that the US press cannot understand US casualties during wartime, and destroys US willpower through ignorant and sensational reporting of such (see Tet offensive coverage).

            The US military knows our primary weakness is US willpower, not anything the enemy, any enemy, can throw at us on the battlefield. So neutralizing our primary weakness by keeping US casualties to a minimum while still engaging the enemy is a valid strategy. Your own hyperbole seems to be clouding your supposed logical thinking process – which was the point of Tom’s post. The simple reality is that we are not mass bombing anyone, we are not killing buttloads of civvies, and we are not lacking proper tools or training. As always, we ARE lacking informed and experienced civilians stateside that can actually understand warfare and its nuances.

  • CJ-

    Hey, does anyone know what weapon system missed and killed those civilians? From the TV snippet I heard in passing it sounded like Excalibur rounds. But I’ve also heard mention of ‘rockets’, so was it GMLRS?

    • James

      it was HIMARS

  • Woah for a second there I thought the Towel Heads had found a box of Stingers… But its just some RoE bull…

    This title is misleading. US Air Power has not been defeated. We’re just squandering it.

  • CAS saves lives; those of our troops.

    Funny how war (in this case one of no value on useless dirt) just never ends up as clean as the combat lawyers want it to be.

  • J House

    Although she is wrong about Afghanistan, Japan was bombed into submission and surrender by killing its civilians and destroying its cities…2 bombs over a 3 day period ended it.

  • M167A1

    Defeated no, the Taliban are not the problem, unrealistic expectations and insane roles of enguagement are the problem.

    Use the CAS, screw the civilians. Its harsh and yes causes its own problems, but you have to get the job done somehow. And limiting your own tools is no way to win.

    The administration seems to be falling into the Johnston administrations footsteps and thinking you can have warfare without killing civilians.

    As Sherman said, (praaphrased) War is all hell, the worse it is the sooner it will be over.

  • if he could accompany it with quite formal, stylised corporal penalty.;
    “No male has ever influenced me the means Christian Grey has, as well as I can not fathom why. Is it his looks?