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Counterinsurgency, Airstrikes and Incoherence in Afghanistan

A huge airstrike in northern Afghanistan has left at least 80 dead, including some civilians. The strike hit fuel trucks taken by insurgents as civilians were extracting gasoline from their tankers.

The U.S. military command in Afghanistan, USFOR-A, tweeted five hours ago that the strike was against “a large number of insurgents,” with no mention of the civilian deaths. Around 7 a.m. eastern time, reporters in the U.S. got this statement from the conjoined NATO command, known as the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF, in their inboxes, pledging an investigation:

ISAF is currently conducting a thorough investigation in close coordination with local and national Afghan government officials, following reports that civilians may have been killed or injured in an ISAF air strike earlier today in Kunduz Province. ISAF always takes reports of civilian casualties seriously and remains concerned with the welfare of Afghans.

“ISAF targeted a large number of insurgents who had stolen two fuel trucks. While the air strike was clearly directed at the insurgents, ISAF will do whatever is necessary to help the community including medical assistance and evacuation as requested,” said Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, ISAF Spokesperson. “ISAF regrets any unnecessary loss of human life and is deeply concerned for the suffering that this action may have caused to our Afghan friends.”

Yesterday, at a Pentagon press conference, Defense Secretary Bob Gates said that he took “seriously” the idea that the “behavior” of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was to some degree more important than the simple size of the troop component. He said this as a way of backing slightly away from a previous worry that an overly large troop presence would inflame Afghan public opinion, which Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, has called “strategically decisive.” Similarly, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated at the same news conference that the purpose of any prospective increase in U.S. troops will be to “protect the Afghan people.” The war in Kunduz Province is under the operational control of Germany, but since McChrystal is said to be seeking greater consolidation and integration of the somewhat disparate NATO regional commands, the contradiction still applies.

McChrystal has already restricted airstrikes in Afghanistan. This one still happened. And it caused a civilian death count that, if history is any guide, will be revised upward. After each of these airstrikes, there are lots of promises to fix what went wrong, and still this one happened. Any military commander will say that he or she can’t completely rule out the tool of airstrikes. But if avoiding civilian casualties and protecting the population from violence really is the preeminent goal of the Afghanistan war, and if McChrystal believes that Afghan sentiment really is strategically decisive, then as absurd as it may seem, the logic of counterinsurgency really does point to ruling them out. There is no reset button to be hit on an eight-year war. The legacy of years of U.S. and NATO airstrikes and the civilian casualties they have caused hovers like a shadow over today’s Kunduz attack.

McChrystal delivered his assessment of the Afghanistan war to the Pentagon earlier this week. Many knowledgeable security experts from Washington contributed to it. It is not public. One line of questioning: what did it say about airstrikes? Did it conduct — has anyone conducted — a study of the actual aggregate utility of airstrikes in the Afghanistan war? As the war has deteriorated, it would be hard, on the face of it, to conclude that the tactic has proved to be a net benefit to U.S. goals in Afghanistan.

It is not necessarily the case that airstrikes decline as troop levels on the ground increase. (And it should be added that Germany is making a fitful effort at reducing its combat reluctance.) But it is necessarily true that if there aren’t enough troops in an area — and the regional command in northern Afghanistan is responsible for an area about the size of Washington state — then commanders will look to airstrikes to plug the gap. And it appears for the time being that the emerging “Plan B” being proposed by some skeptics of increasing troop levels in Afghanistan calls for an increased or sustained reliance on these sorts of air strikes.

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