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Op-Ed Calls for More Air Power, at Whatever Civilian Cost

In a chillingly reprehensible op-ed for the New York Times on Feb. 18, Lara Dadkhah, an unidentified defense analyst, argued that the United States and NATO are placing an “overemphasis on civilian protection” in Afghanistan. She called for the use of more airpower to protect U.S. troops and defeat the Taliban. 

Her argument essentially boils down to the concept that decreasing civilian casualties is not in our best military interests. She is completely wrong.  

Firstly, ordering more airpower without concern for mounting civilian casualties is counter-productive to our stated mission in Afghanistan. The very purpose of a counter-insurgency is to win the trust of the people, thereby establishing stability, eliminating support for the opponent and increasing cooperation in intelligence-gathering for preemptive operations. Protecting the population is both an objective and an advantage over the insurgents.  

Dadkhah, however, says Afghans only feel safe to support the U.S. when troops take complete control of an area, but that is not necessarily the case – they trust us when they do not believe we are carelessly killing their fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends and family.  

Moreover, the “hearts-and-mind”  strategy Dadkhah so disdainfully casts as ineffective was implemented after the lack of such an approach led to scores of unnecessary Afghan deaths at the hands of U.S. forces that greatly diminished Afghan support for coalition forces from both the population and the Afghan government.  

Secondly, General McChrystal’s guidelines limiting when airstrikes may be called for ensure that when airpower is used, it is used effectively and specifically. The guidelines are not meant to leave troops to suffer undue risk but to reduce the number of accidental Afghan deaths. These tactical restrictions reflect the shifting strategy in Afghanistan: from killing as many militants as possible to winning over as much of the population as possible. 

Moreover, effective fighting or successful operations cannot be adequately measured by the amount of close air support (CAS) in place – less CAS might simply indicate there are more troops on the ground. Drone strikes in Afghanistan are also being increasingly used to provide the continual protection and intelligence gathering Dadkhah says is missing.  

Thirdly, Dadkhah’s article erroneously promotes the idea that all of our objectives are military ones (they’re not; they include governance, development and reconstruction). She seems to view Afghan civilians as merely a roadblock to achieving military victory, by arguing that there is a limited utility to reducing civilian casualties: 

“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.” 

But if she would like “compelling proof” of the damage civilian casualties have inflicted on combat operations, perhaps she should study the Soviet example. During the decade-long Soviet occupancy of Afghanistan (1979-1989), Soviet troops took little care to avoid civilian casualties. Yet they were unable to suppress the incensed and insurgent Afghan population; in the end, they were driven out utterly defeated. Gen. McChrystal, and U.S. forces, would be wise not to repeat such a mistake.  

Likewise, she can look at the public reaction in Pakistan over the U.S. use of drone strikes, which have often resulted in civilian casualties. Experts have argued that the use of drones in military operations enrages the population, alienates them from the Pakistani government (a pro-U.S. ally), makes it harder for them to support U.S. objectives and helps militants recruit from the peoples who believe they are under siege from a foreign army.  

If she is still not convinced, then Dadkhah should review the consequences of a NATO airstrike last Sunday night that killed 27 Afghan civilians, including four women and one child. The warplanes mistakenly targeted a group of Afghan travelers, confusing them for Taliban insurgents. The public backlash was strong, and Gen. McChrystal gave a televised apology to the Afghan people that very night. Let us not forget the Sept. 4, 2009 NATO airstrike which killed 90 people, most of the civilians, or the May 2009 NATO airstrike which killed 147 people, also mostly civilians, and incited anti-American and anti-Afghan government riots.  

A U.N. report released in January 2010 showed that civilian casualties in Afghanistan had increased by 14 percent in 2009, to a total of 2,412. But thanks to Gen. McChrystal’s guidelines, the number of civilian casualties caused by coalition forces dropped 30 percent.  

Dadkhah’s argument is that “wars are always ugly, always monstrous, and best avoided.” She says we must use “every advantage” at our disposal to end the war in Afghanistan quickly. But the advantage here is not to deemphasize the impact of civilian casualties on the war effort – or to eliminate air support, as it is indeed necessary and efficient if properly used – but to stabilize Afghanistan by building trust, protecting the population and training the country’s own security forces to help coalition forces battle insurgents. Simply casting aside concern for civilian deaths will not make U.S. troops safer or the fight any easier.   

As Gen. McChrystal rightly says, “We will not win based on the number of Taliban we kill, but instead in our ability to separate insurgents from the center of gravity – the people…We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.” 

  • Carolina Chacon, National Conflicts of Concern Education Coordinator



For more information about Afghanistan, visit GI-NET’s Afghanistan page.

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