SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- American strike fighters and bombers are pounding insurgents in Afghanistan with increasing fury, despite a standing order by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander, to avoid civilian casualties.
President Obama is expected soon to announce his decision on a new Afghan war strategy and on whether to grant McChrystal's request for additional ground troops. Regardless of Obama's decisions, air war planners anticipate an increase in close air support missions in Afghanistan.
The accelerating pace of air operations raises the likelihood of additional civilian casualties, which have been cited by McChrystal and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as an inexcusable detriment to the war effort.
Taliban propagandists continue to churn out diatribes blaming U.S. air strikes as a major cause of the country's agony.
"The blind bombardment on [sic] civilian targets, night raids on people's houses, murder, tortures, bombardments on funeral and wedding ceremonies are some of the crimes the invaders have perpetuated during the past eight years,'' said a Nov. 5 Taliban communiqué, according to a translation by the NEFA Foundation
, which monitors extremist Web sites.
But air strikes have proven essential as U.S. and allied ground troops grapple with shifting Taliban forces and tactics, according to officers here at the headquarters of U.S. Air Forces Central
, which plans and directs all air operations in the Middle East region.
"We expect [close air support missions] to increase. As ground forces become more dispersed and separated from their supporting forces, air power is going to be that capability that allows them to have that kinetic or non-kinetic effect as required,'' said Air Force Lt. Col. John Edwards, deputy chief of plans for the command, known as AFCENT.
"Kinetic" is the military's polite term for "explosive.''
New data from AFCENT shows that ground combat engagements between U.S. troops and Afghan insurgents increased 55 percent since January. The number of air strikes by U.S. jets surged 39 percent from January through October. But the number of bombs dropped per month more than quadrupled, from 138 in January to 647 in October.
U.S. officials said the increase in air strikes and in the number of bombs dropped was in correlation to the increase in fighting across Afghanistan, and reflected, in part, the operations of the 20,000 additional troops ordered to Afghanistan by Obama last spring.
The U.S. effort to push back the widening Taliban-led insurgency and to win the support of the population has been marred by repeated incidents in which Afghan civilians have been killed or injured in air strikes. In Kunduz Province, for instance, as many as 83 villagers were killed in an attack in September by two U.S. F-15E jets. That air strike, which was ordered by a German officer, was investigated by the U.S. and allied commands but the results have never been released.
U.S. data on civilian casualties does not include any casualty numbers from the Kunduz air strike. "Frankly, we may never have an accurate tally from that event,'' said Air Force Lt. Col. Edward Sholtis, a spokesman for McChrystal. He said the report on the incident was still classified and has been passed to the German government.
Despite the Taliban's accusations against the United States for causing civilian casualties, independent organizations, including the United Nations, have documented the Taliban as the cause of most Afghan civilian casualties, primarily through the use of roadside bombs and suicide attacks.
Taliban insurgents often launch attacks on U.S. forces from civilian housing compounds, according to American ground combat commanders, deliberately exposing civilians to risk. If there are casualties, the Taliban blame Americans, they said.
To minimize civilian deaths as well as damaging accusations, McChrystal in July ordered a crackdown on the use of aerial bombing. Air strikes that might endanger residential compounds would be authorized only under "very limited and prescribed conditions,'' McChrystal ordered.
The effect of his directive on combat pilots was immediate: the responsibility to determine whether to drop bombs on enemy targets shifted from ground commanders to pilots. The air commander at Bagram Air Base, Brig. Gen. Steven Kwast, directed that even when American troops are under fire, pilots should not automatically agree to drop bombs.
In many circumstances, pilots say, they can see a better solution than the ground commander. Often this means the pilot will swoop down low over the insurgents to scatter them, and then strike when they are fleeing and at a safe distance from civilians.
"In no way was the (McChrystal) directive intended to limit air support to a ground unit,'' Air Force Col. Keith McBride, deputy director of the CENTAF air operations center, said in a telephone interview from Al Udeid air base in Qatar. The order was "to minimize collateral damage – NOT to minimize effects on the enemy,'' he said.
Sholtis, McChrystal's spokesman, said the number of civilians killed by U.S. and allied forces are "steadily trending downward,'' with 251 confirmed dead in the first 10 months of last year compared with 176 during the same period this year. The number of civilians killed by insurgents is "holding steady or trending a bit upward,'' he said, an assessment echoed by investigators for the United Nations.
"This is not tremendously great news for Afghans, because they need to be protected from insurgent violence, too,'' Sholtis acknowledged. "But if the trend holds, you could see the relative levels of violence further alienating the insurgents from the population.''
Although U.S. efforts seem to have reduced civilian casualties, it may be impossible to eliminate them. And the Kunduz incident demonstrates how a single error or misjudgment can have a profound effect, angering Afghans, tarnishing the U.S. claim that its forces are protecting the Afghan people, and handing the Taliban a propaganda bonanza.
Villagers have provided a list of civilians killed
in the Kunduz air strike to Amnesty International. If those 83 people were included in the civilian casualty statistics, it would indicate that civilian casualties caused by U.S. and allied forces are rising, not declining.
Casualty calculations aside, air war planners here are scrambling to anticipate the president's war decisions, which will dictate a likely increase in aircraft and an acceleration in the pace of air operations. Each new idea emanating from the White House causes a spurt of additional planning.
"Just as you've heard numbers, we've heard numbers,'' said Col. Ken Craib, deputy chief of operations for CENTAF. Responding to news leaks from the White House, he added, means he and his planners work "a lot of weekends.''
Air operations planning is a complex process. The main air bases in Afghanistan, Bagram and Kandahar air fields, are already crowded with additional cargo planes and a squadron of fighters sent in earlier this year. Moving additional strike aircraft into Afghanistan would require building more ramp space to service and park aircraft, and would demand additional support from aerial refueling aircraft. Heavy KC-10 and KC-135 refuelers are based outside Afghanistan, flying mostly from Persian Gulf bases in complex orbits to rendezvous with fighters, which need regular tanking.
"You do it over and over again,'' Craib said, describing the work of planners. "You work off certain assumptions, talk with the allies and the ground forces, refine your assumptions, the plan begins to take shape, then you get new assumptions.'' he said.
Like everyone else, he said, "we are waiting to see the guidance from the president and secretary of defense on the way ahead as they see it.''