Copied in full from Noah Shachtman and Spencer Ackerman 5 July post to Danger Room.
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 straegy, 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. During the week of June 26th, they made a staggering 207 attack runs — easily the most of 2011.
U.S. officials claim that the aggressiveness of the past year has helped break the Taliban’s momentum — especially in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. Yet civilian deaths are up 20 percent over this time last year. And while things may be looking up in the south, the strategic center of the Afghanistan conflict — the east, which borders Pakistan — has been falling off the cliff. The solution won’t be more troops there, the White House says. It’ll likely be more air power.
According to Petraeus, the east will soon see a “shift of intelligence assets,” along with “armed and lift helicopters and perhaps the shift of some relatively small coalition forces on the ground.” Afghan forces will have to hold any territory against the Taliban and the Haqqani network, backstopped by coalition commandos, drones, warplanes and attack helicopters. Together, they’ll have to “slowly attrit the [Haqqani] network, and force their commanders back in North Waziristan to fill their spots,” says Jeffrey Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War. It’ll be a “challenge” to “keep that pressure on” from the sky.
Any of this sound familiar? When the insurgency began gathering strength from 2006 to 2008, the U.S. used airstrikes to compensate for its meager troop numbers. That resulted in outrage from Afghans, as the strikes would periodically wipe out dozens of innocents at a time, and a decision by U.S. commanders to scale back the air war in favor of a big counterinsurgency campaign.
Except that the new U.S. air war isn’t a replay of the old one. Thanks to an influx of spy planes, both manned and unmanned, American-led forces can observe (and listen to) suspected militants like never before. In the first half of 2009, the coalition flew 120 surveillance flights per week, on average. This past week, there were 687 spy sorties — almost a five-fold increase.
Advances in processing that data give the troops the ability to pounce quickly and surgically. It’s one of the reasons why the U.S. and its allies are now responsible for only 10 percent of civilian casualties, according to United Nations statistics, compared to 39 percent in 2008.
But for Afghans weighed down by a decade of war, it may not matter much who is doing the killing. The U.S.-led coalition promised to bring some stability to Afghanistan. Every corpse is a sign that goal has gone unmet. Maybe that’s one reason why Afghan president Hamid Karzai has called for all but ending the airstrikes and the night raids. What’s Karzai’s alternative — to tell the Taliban to knock it off?
Besides, it’s not like Petraeus listened to Karzai’s pronouncement. All of the bombing from the last month happened after Karzai made his plea.