Less Troops = More Indiscriminate Air Strikes

The relationship between boots on the ground and civilian casualties in Afghanistan doesn’t get much clearer than in this Washington Post article:

On JuGR2009092300234ly 2, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, issued a directive restricting the military’s use of airstrikes and artillery bombardments. In July and August, the number of Afghan civilians killed by coalition forces was 19, compared with 151 for the same two months last year

The rest of the article gets into the trade-off between force exposure and civilian casualties, a fairly intuitive point that often gets lost in these discussions. Every advocate of withdrawal seems to be in favor of some ill-defined “residual force” to prevent Al-Qaeda from reestablishing itself and the Taliban from overrunning Northern Afghanistan. But the contours of this approach are already being discussed by the Administration:

Among the alternatives being presented to Mr. Obama is Mr. Biden’s suggestion to revamp the strategy altogether. Instead of increasing troops, officials said, Mr. Biden proposed scaling back the overall American military presence. Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics.

In short, not only will this leave the population more vulnerable to Taliban incursions, the Administration intends to rely on “surgical” methods that dramatically increase the likelihood of civilian casualties. The outcome of this strategy is hardly theoretical: there is a strong empirical correlation between air strikes and an increase in civilian casualties. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the political logic of aerial escalation is also inescapable: if Obama wants to shore up his national security credibility post-withdrawal, indiscriminately bombing Afghanistan is the obvious political solution. Nixon couldn’t leave Vietnam until he bombed Cambodia; Obama won’t leave Central Asia until he levels Afghanistan.

UPDATE: Third link fixed; it’s meant to send you to a Human Rights Watch report on air strikes and civilian casualties.

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4 thoughts on “Less Troops = More Indiscriminate Air Strikes

  1. In short, not only will this leave the population more vulnerable to Taliban incursions, the Administration intends to rely on “surgical” methods that dramatically increase the likelihood of civilian casual

    I made this point in another thread, below.
    Another point to keep in mind is that drone/special forces attacks, cannot be launched from “over the horizon.” There is a limit to the distance needed to mount such attacks. This leaves “surgical strikes,” which means precision-guided bombs. If this is all we have after withdrawing, then yourNixon scenario will probably happen. This is just one more in a long line of Obama/Nixon parallels.

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    • Obviously, Special Forces attacks can’t be launched from over the horizon. But more generally, unless I am missing your point, you seem to be operating from an all-or nothing assumption. I’m pretty sure any kinetic CT-based scenario currently being contemplated involves leaving ample troops on the ground to have a very potent target-acquisition force, along with the related force-protection missions. When the Times describes Biden as advocating a scaled back commitment, I’m pretty sure something on the order of what we had in country prior to the inauguration, maybe a bit less, is what he’s envisioning.

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  2. Is the US going to be bombing Afghanistan indefinitely? Presumably, at some point the US will completely get out of there and civilian deaths will drop to zero. If you think adding more troops will “solve” Afghanistan, then you’re right. If not, then all it does is delay the inevitable point where the US starts doing exactly what withdrawal advocates are suggesting with a lot more civilians dead in the mean time.

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    • The reason I’m at least willing to support a COIN strategy is that it at least has an exit strategy envisioned, even if we don’t like the timeline. We’re done when certain political benchmarks are met, most saliently when we believe threats from within Afghanistan to its neighbors and beyond are contained to a level we can accept. As you say, if we just go to a drone/surgical ground strike campaign, how do we know when to end it? I don’t buy that that is when Obama has “leveled Afghanistan,” as Will believes for reasons I don’t comprehend. (It’s already pretty flat in terms of edifices, and mostly rubble.) But indeed, it’s hard to know how to say when we can cease fire.

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