The United States and NATO campaign in Afghanistan to support the democratic government of Afghanistan and to defeat the al-Qaida/Taliban alliance has always represented something of a balancing act. The challenge is to accomplish these critical and difficult tasks without alienating a population that has always been suspicious of and resistant to anything they perceive as foreign occupation. For that reason the US and NATO has strived to maintain a modest military footprint. The downside is that it may be too small in relation to the mission.
The problem may be aggravated by the fact that the war in Iraq has placed such a strain on the US ground forces that there simply aren’t enough available to significantly buttress the force in Afghanistan, especially of Special Forces soldiers, who function best in that environment.
In Afghanistan the US has relied on air strikes both as a tactical tool and as a substitute for a more substantive ground presence. The benefits are obvious: such strikes enable the US/NATO forces to fight off ambushes by superior numbers of Taliban; they enable quick strikes against Taliban forces where ground forces are unavailable; and they increase the firepower of the US/NATO forces enormously in a difficult environment where they do not always enjoy a numerical or tactical advantage.
Increasingly, however, the use of airpower by US and NATO forces has exacted a price in terms of civilian casualties that the people of Afghanistan may not be prepared to pay much longer. And if their anger at what they perceive as an indifference to civilian deaths reaches a tipping point, the US/NATO effort not to mention the authority of the government of Hamid Kaizai could well begin to unravel.
It seems that hardly a week goes by without a fresh report of innocent women and children being killed and injured in air strikes aimed at insurgents. It is hardly a comfort to the relatives of the deceased that the insurgents may have taken refuge in houses or compounds containing civilians from which they had fired at US or NATO forces.
It seems reasonable to ask whether this apparent over reliance on airpower which, even with the precision technology now available, still represents a blunt instrument, is entirely appropriate in a counter-insurgency war where winning the hearts and minds of the people is paramount.
Even a casual reader of military history will know that over reliance on airpower has been a criticism that has dogged the American military since World War II. German accounts and assessments of American combat prowess were invariably contemptuous of what they saw as a dependence on air support (which might easily have been mistaken for envy) in the face of the enemy. The same criticism has followed the American army in Korea and Vietnam. In these wars, however, most of the fighting was done on the open battlefield; even in Vietnam, the fighting was primarily against main-force Vietcong and later North Vietnamese regulars, against whom the employment of airpower made perfect sense.
Afghanistan and Iraq, however, are different and the continuation of the trend to use airpower as additional firepower in urban or suburban centres, or in villages and towns where civilians live in significant numbers is disturbing and counterproductive.
And it is not just airpower that has been a problem; civilians have also been targeted by ground forces, notably in a recent incident when a US Marine Corps Special Operations company appears, by most accounts, to have gone postal after a roadside bomb exploded close to their convoy.
US commanders seem aware of the problem but have yet come up with any solutions.
You don’t have to be a military expert to know that counterinsurgency warfare requires both a different mind and skill set than a conventional conflict. Even aside from the moral aspect, avoiding “collateral damage” i.e. civilian casualties is not merely important – it is critical to the success of the mission. Without the support of the populations, success in either Iraq and or Afghanistan will be impossible.
It is no secret that America’s British allies have been appalled at times by the heavy handed, overly aggressive approach of the American forces in Iraq, particularly at the beginning of the occupation, which may have contributed to the insurgency taking root in Sunni Anbar Province and elsewhere. There are signs that the message has got through in the Iraq theatre, particularly with new and better leaders such as General David Petraeus. However, the meltdown by the Marine Special Operations unit in Afghanistan suggests that the problems still persist there, even in supposedly elite units?
It seems reasonable at this juncture to pose some pertinent questions such as:
– Is the US military really suited by temperament and training to counterinsurgency type warfare or is it simply trained to be too aggressive, an attribute which may work well on a conventional battlefield, but is a liability in a counterinsurgency environment?
– Are our forces stretched so thin because of the Iraq imbroglio that we can’t put enough of the right sort or mix of units, such as more special forces, where they are needed in Afghanistan?
– Is it enough to pursue a counterinsurgent strategy without the necessary change to the military culture to enable such a plan to succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Nobody doubts the bravery or dedication of the American forces or their ability to wage conventional warfare. Waging a counterinsurgency, however, requires more than a re-write of the appropriate army manual. Whether our soldiers are now embroiled in conflicts for which their temperament, culture and training has simply not prepared them – that is where there is room for doubt.