WASHINGTON - On June 18, seven children
were killed during a US-led air strike against a
suspected al-Qaeda sanctuary in eastern
Afghanistan. Three days later, at least 25
civilians died during a similar "incident" in
Helmand province in the south of the country.
The same day, a US air strike aimed at a
house in the Iraqi town of Baquba accidentally hit
a different structure, wounding 11 civilians. The
Pentagon is investigating the errant strike.
The above "incidents" are part and parcel
of warfare, initially
denied, later called
"accidents", rationalized as "collateral damage",
regularly "under investigation", and always
Yet as US President George
W Bush's "surge" policy ebbs in the quagmire of
Iraq, and the US-led North Atlantic Treaty
Organization force struggles to maintain order in
Afghanistan, increasing calls in Congress and
among the US public for a gradual withdrawal of
combat troops may result in an escalation of the
use of air power.
As Tom Engelhardt, the
essayist of Tomdispatch.com, writes, "Barring an
unexpected change of policy, some version of this
list of 'errant' incidents, multiplied many times
over, is likely to represent the future of both
Afghanistan and Iraq" (Death from above, Asia
Times Online, July 12)
Compared with the
sensational suicide attacks that lead the nightly
news - a truck bombing in Amerli, north of
Baghdad, killed more than 150 civilians last
weekend, making it one of the deadliest single
bombings since the 2003 invasion - air strikes
remain a rudimentary aspect of war, and rarely
make the headlines. When they do, they are often
buried deep in the story.
is euphemistically referred to as "surgical" or
"precise" so as to diminish the awesome and
devastating power of 900-kilogram bombs being
dropped from the sky. It was implemented
decisively during the early stages of the 2001 war
in Afghanistan, when the US provided air support
for the Northern Alliance as it routed the Taliban
from power. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US
military commanders incorporated a "shock and awe"
strategy, designed to bombard the Iraqi military
with such immense force it would quickly submit
and bring about a swift defeat.
But as the
US-led coalition struggles in Afghanistan and
Iraq, aerial bombardments have received increasing
attention, not for their pinpoint accuracy so much
as for the number of civilians killed during the
expanding bombing sorties.
government, human-rights groups, and humanitarian
aid organizations say that more than 300 civilians
have died this year as a result of Western
operations, mostly when air power was called in to
help allied troops in trouble, according to a
recent report from Reuters.
looking closely at our air operations, but it
would not be something we would be looking to
change at this point," International Security
Assistance Force (ISAF) spokeswoman
Lieutenant-Colonel Maria Carl told reporters in
Kabul late last month. This was "mostly from the
standpoint that air offers us the opportunity to
cover a lot more [of] that ground that we can't do
with a limited number of troops at that moment",
Almost six years after the
US-led invasion, frequent troop shortages, as well
as an aversion to allied troop casualties, have
forced military commanders to increase their
dependence on air power to defeat insurgents. And
the Afghan death toll as a result of air strikes
continues to rise.
On July 2, 45 civilians
were killed during a NATO-led air assault in
Hydererbad, in the south of Afghanistan,
compelling President Hamid Karzai to call publicly
for an investigation into the incident. While
Karzai has condemned the Taliban for using human
shields, he has also said the foreign soldiers
consider Afghan lives "cheap".
after the Bush administration's "shock and awe"
campaign that was supposed to kill Saddam Hussein
and bring peace to Iraq failed to accomplish what
was intended, US warplanes have increased attacks
again, dropping bombs at more than twice the rate
as the previous year, according to a recent report
by the Associated Press (AP).
So far this
year, US warplanes have dropped 237 bombs and
missiles in support of coalition ground troops in
Iraq, exceeding the 229 dropped in all of 2006,
according to US Air Force figures obtained by AP
in the same report.
If the bombing trend
is any indication, a US troop withdrawal or
"drawdown" will most likely be accompanied by an
even greater reliance on air power, a precedent
that was set during the Vietnam war, when
then-president Richard Nixon announced his
Under the plan,
South Vietnam was to be supplied with arms,
equipment, and military advisers while the US
force withdrew. During the same period, Nixon
authorized mass bombing runs into Laos and
Cambodia, as well as the war's largest bombing
campaign, Operation Proud Deep, in which US B-52
bombers and other jet bombers flew more than 1,000
sorties into North Vietnam.
Nixon came to office, prominent Lyndon Johnson
administration adviser Samuel Huntington - who is
most famous for his controversial "Clash of
Civilizations" thesis - justified the heavy
bombardment of the South Vietnam countryside as a
way to drive the peasants who supported the
Vietcong into urban areas. By directly applying
"mechanical and conventional power" on a massive
scale so as to compel a massive migration from the
countryside to cities, Huntington theorized that
the Vietnamese would be less likely to support a
communist agrarian revolution.
changing landscape of 21st-century warfare, a
technologically superior US military has been
forced to adapt its strategy to combat
counterinsurgency tactics. Guerrilla warfare is
waged on city streets, often amid civilian
populations. Hence air power can never be an
effective substitute for ground fighting.
This was witnessed during last year's war
between Israel and the Islamist resistance group
Hezbollah. During a four-week period, the Israel
Defense Forces (IDF) relentlessly bombed Lebanon,
destroying much of the country's infrastructure in
the process. But the objective of the IDF's
massive use of air power - to eliminate the threat
of Hezbollah permanently - was never accomplished.
"Military historians have a name for the
logic behind Israel's military campaign in
Lebanon. It's called 'strategic bombing fallacy',"
Brookings Institution fellow Philip H Gordon wrote
in an op-ed in the Washington Post during the 2006
war. "Far from bringing about the intended
softening of the opposition, bombing tends to
rally people behind their own leaders and cause
them to dig in against outsiders who, whatever the
justification, are destroying their homeland."
As the US public's tolerance for troop
casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan steadily
shrinks, the Bush administration finds itself in a
precarious situation. Reliance on air power and
the cumulative effect of errant bombs portends an
ominous future for US political goals in the