BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- Despite a dramatic increase in the tempo of fighting across Afghanistan this summer, U.S. attack jets are dropping significantly fewer bombs on enemy insurgents, according to Air Force data.
At the same time, U.S. aircraft are flying record numbers of combat sorties each day to try to locate insurgents, track their movements, listen in on their conversations and work with U.S. ground troops to close in on them. In many cases, when American troops engaged in firefights call for overhead fighters to attack the enemy, it now falls to the pilots to ask, in essence, "Well, isn't there another way to resolve this problem?"
Increasingly, in what pilots say is an effective tactic, jets swoop down low over the insurgents, causing them to break contact and scatter. The new approach stems from a directive by Gen. Stanley McChrystal,
who became the top commander in Afghanistan in June, to make protection of civilians a top priority. He ordered that air-dropped munitions, which have killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan, be used only in "very limited and prescribed conditions" -- conditions that he has declined to specify publicly.
In effect, McChrystal's directive makes the pilots the "voice of reason'' -- even in the middle of a firefight.
"It used to be, the ground commander requested a bomb and a bomb he got," Air Force Col. James J. Beissner, an F-15 pilot and vice commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing based here, told me. "Now the ground commander requests a bomb, and I and the ground commander and the JTAC [joint tactical air controller] all talk about it."
On one recent mission, F-16 pilot Roberto "Chico'' Flammia came across six Afghans wearing backpacks, running along a streambed toward coalition forces. "The JTAC asked if we could strafe, and I said no, we have no reason to,'' Flammia, an Air Force captain, said as we stood on the flight line. "We're not going to blow up guys who [merely] look suspicious.''
In such cases, the pilots and ground commanders and others can track the insurgents while trying to determine whether they are a threat to U.S. forces. Even when Americans are under fire, "the question we always raise is, do we really need to go kinetic [use weapons], or is there a better approach?'' said Beissner. "This conversation goes down to the lowest level, and that means we are not dropping as many bombs.''
He described this as "a fundamental change in strategy for a fighter [pilot]. It's very effective and it's changed the way we fight, for the better,'' he said. At the same, he added, "when the guy on the ground says, 'I need a bomb NOW,' to say, 'well, hold on a second' -- that's frustrating.''
Between 2006 and 2008, the number of bombs unleashed by U.S. fighter jets against insurgents in Afghanistan doubled, from 2,644 in 2006 to 5,051 last year. But in the first six months of 2009, 2,011 munitions were dropped, a 24 percent decrease from the same period a year ago. Meantime, American ground troops increasingly are coming under fire.
In July, the U.S. command recorded 590 reports of "troops in contact'' (TICs) with enemy forces – i.e., attacks and firefights. That was a 33 percent increase over the number in July 2008, when 445 TICs were reported. Despite that increase, the allied command reported dropping only 369 munitions in July -- a decrease of 51 percent from July 2008.
To recap: last month, firefights went up 33 percent, bombing went down 51 percent.
For dedicated counterinsurgency experts, such numbers are exhilarating news. "Every time a bomb drops I shudder,'' said Brig. Gen. Steve Kwast, commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, who flies combat missions here. "People have to die and that's not good, it is not right, it is not moral, not ethical,'' he told me.
"If I had my perfect world, this base would be about bringing schools and courthouses and hospitals and peace and security and development, in a way the Afghan people want, and all those [fighter jets] can just sit on the ramp and I'd be the happiest man in the world.''
In the real, non-perfect world, however, the general acknowledged that air power still has a role in winning a counterinsurgency war -- "when there is no other way to protect civilians than to fly your jet over to dissuade the enemy from engaging or to chase them off,'' he allowed.
So, with their afterburners spurting a blue and yellow glow, U.S. fighter jets still do torch off the runway here carrying 500- and 2,000-pound bombs and missiles and with their gun pods loaded. And, being armed, trained and ready to attack, and hearing on the radio the sounds of battle below where Americans are fighting for their lives, does raise the frustration level of fighter pilots, they acknowledge.
Here is the experience of F-16 pilot Lt. Col. Tim Gosnell, who flies combat missions here as commander of the 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron flying under the call sign "Goose.''
"You hear a young man screaming on the radio, you hear firing in the background, and he comes up [on the radio net] and says, 'Good evening Viper One,' and a few minutes later you can hear the fear in his voice, he's really scared,'' Gosnell told me.
How Gosnell responds "is a matter of everything you can see and understand, being able to interpret it all, and asking yourself, Is there really anything I can do here?" As a guide, pilots have a series of escalating steps they may use to try to resolve the situation to the benefit of the troops below.
But in some cases -- 369 times last month -- there's no alternative but to unload explosives on the bad guys down below. "Sometimes," Gosnell acknowledged, "that voice on the radio down there causes you to skip a step or two, and just act."
Undoubtedly, the restrained U.S. strategy implemented by Gen. McChrystal in July has lowered the civilian death toll, which was its goal. But air power is still lethal -- and there are many other ways for Afghans to die as well. On July 31, the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan reported
that in the first six months of 2009, 1,013 civilians were killed, a 24 percent increase
over the same period in 2008. Of that total, 59 percent of the civilian deaths were caused by insurgents, and 30.5 percent by pro-government forces. The U.N. said 200 civilians were killed in airstrikes, and 595 were killed by insurgents, including 400 civilians killed by suicide bombs or IEDs.