Afghan air war grows in intensity

Fears of civilian casualties rise as airstrikes increase

July 28, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON - Daily airstrikes by U.S. and allied fighter-bombers in Afghanistan have almost doubled since last summer, according to U.S. Air Force data, a trend that reflects increased insurgent attacks but also raises concerns about civilian casualties.

The growing reliance on airstrikes by U.S. commanders in Afghanistan appears to mark a turn in the course of the war.

Responding to requests from ground commanders, allied aircraft over the past week have pummeled enemy ground targets an average of 68 times a day across Afghanistan, dropping 500- and 2,000-pound guided bombs and strafing enemy forces with cannon fire, according to Air Force daily strike reports.

A year ago, the Air Force was recording about 35 airstrikes per day in Afghanistan.

Although the Air Force takes what it says are exhaustive measures to avoid accidental deaths, civilian casualties from airstrikes have spiked twice this year, from none in January to 23 in March to 60 so far this month, according to new, unpublished data from Human Rights Watch researcher Marc Garlasco, a former targeting chief for the Pentagon's Joint Staff.

Taliban-led insurgents are attacking in significant numbers and staying to fight rather than engaging in traditional hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, according to U.S. commanders.

In several recent incidents, U.S. and allied troops prevailed in pitched battles only after fighter-bombers showed up to blast the insurgents.

The growing role of air power suggests that the war will require more than the additional troops recommended by President Bush and both presidential candidates. It might require more manned and unmanned aircraft from an already overstretched Air Force and Navy.

And greater use of air power would likely result in more civilian casualties, in a conflict in which winning local loyalty is considered the key to success.

Last fall, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, responding to the rising civilian death toll from airstrikes, publicly demanded that the United States find an alternative. But airstrikes only increased.

Allied commanders are still investigating a July 6 airstrike that the Afghan government says killed 47 civilians on their way to a wedding.

"We deeply regret any incident where civilians are harmed," said Royal Navy Capt. Mike Finney, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan.

Enemy 'emboldened'

But the Air Force says it is only responding to the intensity of fighting on the ground.

"Let's face it, the enemy is more emboldened," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Douglas L. Raaberg, deputy commander of air operations in the region. Raaberg is a B-1 bomber pilot who has flown strike missions over Afghanistan as recently as last week.

"The Taliban, when they have an opportunity to take a stand, they are doing that," he said in a telephone interview from the region.

Coalition aircraft have doubled the number of hours they spend each day on airborne "armed overwatch" of U.S. and allied convoys and other operations, he said. He acknowledged that strike missions also have doubled as ground commanders increasingly request air support.

To meet the demand, allied air crews are flying more sorties each day, and more U.S. aircraft are on station with the recent diversion of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln from Iraq operations to supporting operations in Afghanistan.

"We are shifting assets as needed to make sure we don't leave [ground forces] uncovered," Raaberg said.

But the Air Force has to scramble to meet unexpected demand.

A Taliban attack July 13, for example, nearly overran a remote U.S. and Afghan outpost near the Pakistani border. Insurgents held the upper hand in combat until an Air Force B-1 bomber flew in to drop 2,000-pound bombs, an unmanned Predator fired a Hellfire missile and other strike aircraft dropped bombs and strafed the enemy with cannon. The insurgents retreated, leaving nine American soldiers dead.

"The only reason they weren't completely overrun was air power, and that's the first time that has happened" in the Afghan war, said John McCreary, who retired in 2006 as a senior intelligence analyst for the Pentagon's Joint Staff.

"Coalition ground forces are not winning every battle, but they are winning every battle where they have air support," said McCreary, who follows Afghanistan closely and still assembles a daily open-source intelligence report.

On July 20, Raaberg was piloting a B-1 bomber over Afghanistan when he was redirected to attack Taliban forces gathering for an assault on a U.S. forward operating base in Kunar province, in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan.

"They started attacking within half an hour of when I got there," Raaberg recalled. He said U.S. artillery fired at the enemy, followed by airstrikes, followed by more artillery and more airstrikes, "until we ran out of bombs."

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