Civilian casualties mount as US, NATO turn to airpower in Afghanistan
* Analysts believe NATO countries’ hesitation to take troop casualties and lack of adequate ground forces have made airpower an irresistible option
WASHINGTON: With reinforcements often a long helicopter ride away, US and NATO troops in Afghanistan are turning to air power when they get into trouble. A disturbing result, analysts say, has been mounting civilian casualties.
Over the past month, Afghan officials reported 50 civilians killed in US air strikes in fighting in the western province in Herat, and another 21 in south central Helmand province. They followed a string of similar incidents last year as fighting intensified between NATO and Taliban forces, many of them involving air strikes called in by troops in the heat of battle. “Every time that happens someone walks away .. with a bad feeling either to NATO or the United States or its coalition members. That’s what we don’t want to happen,” General Bantz Craddock, NATO’s supreme allied commander, told reporters Friday.
The deaths have sparked public outrage at a time when NATO is facing a major challenge from the Taliban, creating a dilemma for commanders over whether the gains offered by air strikes are worth the loss in public support. Some analysts say too few troops on the ground, coupled with allied sensitivities about using ground forces and taking casualties, have made air power an irresistible option. “The problem is when you don’t have enough forces on the ground, and when those forces - especially with the variety of NATO countries - are restricted and there are deep concerns about casualties, air power is all you have left,” said Seth Jones, an analyst at the Rand Corporation, a think tank with ties to the US Air Force.
“This is the paradox I think that NATO is in. It has to in many cases resort to air power in a major way,” he said. Craddock told reporters that the lack of helicopters and troops promised by NATO allies last year at a summit in Riga also contributes to the problem. “It’s not so much the lack of ground troops,” he said. “It’s the ability to get from point A to point B to alleviate a problem in extremis.” “You’ve got a patrol out there in Afghanistan, you bump into something and come under fire. I don’t care how many battalions you’ve got, the question is do you have these rotary helicopter assets to move a reaction force quickly to bail out forces under fire,” he said.
“Other than that there is close air support,” he said. Close air support missions averaged 44 a day this month with an assortment of US, British and French fighter aircraft watching over convoys, dropping flares and occasionally dipping into strafe or bomb insurgent positions, according to air force reports. US special forces called in unusually heavy aerial support in fighting April 27 through April 30 in the remote Zerkoh Valley of Afghanistan’s western Herat province.
Air force B-1B bombers and F-15E fighters dropped 2,000 pound and 500 pound satellite-guided bombs on Taliban positions and on at least one compound that had been used as a firing position, according to air force summaries. A US military press release said an AC-130 gunship also was used to kill a large number of fighters. It put the total Taliban dead in two days of fighting at 136. Later, though, Afghan and UN officials said the bodies of 50 civilians were recovered, and differing accounts have emerged over whether US forces engaged Taliban fighters or armed villagers fighting off foreign intruders.
The US military has provided no explanation of what happened, or acknowledged any civilians were killed in the fighting. Officials said the commander on the scene used “appropriate level of force” to protect his unit. The rules under which a commander is required to operate are classified, so it is not known what restrictions are placed on them. Military officials say they go to great lengths, using surveillance aircraft and “eyes on the ground” to positively identify their targets, and hold back if they cannot.
But, said Craddock, “this is imperfect science.” “At the end of the day, the decision to launch the ordnance is a human decision,” he said. “The technology only gets you closer to the intended point of view, that you see what it is you’re shooting at and hit what you see. The decision to do that is a human decision. That is what we’re up against.” He said General Dan McNeil, the American general who commands ISAF, has conducted a preliminary review of civilian deaths incidents and found that the rules were followed in most cases.
“Then it becomes a decision that we have to go out and look at as to gains and loss,” Craddock said. “Loss of popular support versus gains of taking out one, two, three of the bad guys.” “That’s where we’re going to have to put our focus here. And it won’t be changing ROEs (rules of engagement), it will be changing tactics, techniques and procedures.” afp