The present U.S. policy in Afghanistan of using
air strikes to target local Taliban leaders was rejected by the top U.S. commander
in Afghanistan in early 2004 as certain to turn the broader population against
the U.S. presence.
Lt. Gen. David Barno, the three-star general who commanded the Combined Forces
Command-Afghanistan, the overall U.S. and coalition command for Afghanistan
from October 2003 to mid-2005, recalled in an interview that he had ordered
that such air strikes be halted in Afghanistan in early 2004. He said the decision
did not prohibit air strikes for close support of U.S. troops in contact with
Gen. Barno, now retired from the Army and director of the Near East South
Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, said
he decided to stop the use of pre-targeted air strikes in early 2004 because
the civilian casualties they caused were eroding the tolerance of the Afghan
population for the U.S. military presence in the country.
"I felt that civilian casualties were strategically decoupling us from
our objective," said Barno. "It caused blowback that undermined our
But Barno said he had viewed the Afghan population's willingness to accept
U.S. troops in the country as a "bag of capital," which U.S. forces
were "spending too rapidly every time we caused civilian casualties with
airpower or knocked down doors or detained someone in front of their family."
After Barno left Afghanistan in 2005, air strikes aimed at killing local Taliban
or al-Qaeda leaders resumed, and air strikes have come to be used routinely
in military encounters with Taliban troops. The same tactic has also been used
to target local al-Qaeda leaders in northwest Pakistan.
U.S. planes flew just 86 bombing missions in Afghanistan in all of 2004, but
in 2007, the number of such air strikes had risen to nearly 3,000, according
to U.S. Air Forces Central Command figures.
The exponential rise in bombing continued in 2008. In the two months of June
and July 2008 alone, the United States dropped nearly 600,000 pounds of bombs
in Afghanistan roughly equivalent to the total tonnage dropped in all of
2006 according to statistics collected by Marc Gerlasco of Human Rights
U.S. air strikes have generated a rapidly rising rate of civilian casualties,
creating a political climate marked by increased anger toward the U.S. and
NATO military presence, according to many Afghan and foreign observers.
The worst case of civilian casualties was the killing by a C-130 gunship of
as many as 95 civilians, including 50 children and 19 women, according to local
tribal elders and Afghan government officials, in the village of Azizabad in
Herat province Aug. 22. The air attack came after U.S. Special Forces had gotten
intelligence that a Taliban commander was in Azizabad and had been unable to
That incident followed two different air strikes in eastern Afghanistan in
early July, in which 69 civilians were killed, including 47 people walking
to a wedding party, according to Afghan officials.
Barno's successors have justified the vastly increased use of air strikes
as necessary because of the small number of ground combat troops available
in Afghanistan. In May 2007, a U.S. military official told Carlotta Gall of
the New York Times, "[W]ithout air, we'd need hundreds of thousands
One of the key considerations in convincing him to stop the use of pre-targeted
air strikes, Barno recalled, was the tribal nature of Afghan society. "Whenever
you cause civilian casualties, you are killing members of a tribe and spreading
a widening circle of revenge-seeking."
Barno said that in his view, the use of airpower was not an effective means
of weakening the Taliban political-military organization in any case. The intelligence
on Taliban targets, he said, "often turned out to be flat wrong."
The unreliability of human intelligence on Taliban targets was underlined
by the killing of 95 civilians in Azizabad. Carlotta Gall of the New York
Times reported that tribal elders who had buried the dead said the U.S.
had gotten its intelligence on the target from a tribesman who had killed a
rival tribal leader in Azizabad eight months earlier. Most of the civilians
killed had traveled to Azizabad for a memorial ceremony to honor the dead tribal
leader, according to Gall's story.
The tribal elders, as well as Afghan police and intelligence agency, said
that not a single Taliban had been killed in the air strike.
Barno pointed out that even if local leaders had been killed in air strikes,
it might not have significantly reduced the Taliban's capabilities. The Taliban
organization was "like a starfish, not like a spider," Barno said.
"Even if you killed the leadership except for the very top guys
they would be quickly replaced."
"During my tenure, I was very concerned that if killing local Taliban
leaders with air strikes produced civilian casualties, the tactical benefit
would not offset the strategic damage it did to our cause," said Barno.
Although Barno said he believes the same principle would probably still apply
in the present situation of dramatically increased Taliban strength, he refused
to "second guess" U.S. commanders who have adopted a different policy.
Barno believes, however, that U.S. and NATO forces should focus more clearly
upon protecting the Afghan population, which he characterized as the "center
of gravity" of the effort. In an article in Military Review last
fall, Barno observed that NATO and U.S. military tactics "seem to convey
the belief that the center of gravity is no longer the Afghan population and
their security but the enemy."
Those changes from his strategic approach, he wrote, "in all likelihood
do not augur well for the future of our policy goals in Afghanistan."
The retired three-star general said he supports an increase in troops in Afghanistan.
But he acknowledged that more troops may not bring about major reductions in
air strikes, at least in the near term. "When you've got that tool in
the tool box," said Barno, "there is a tendency to use it, even though
at times it may put your strategic interest at risk."
According to John Burns, writing in Sunday's New York Times, senior
U.S. and British officers in Kabul briefed reporters last week on a new directive
from the top U.S. commander, Gen. David McKiernan, to field commanders applying
the more restrictive NATO policy on air strikes previously to U.S. forces under
his command. The NATO policy imposes tighter conditions on air strikes but
does not rule out either pre-targeted or tactical combat air strikes.
The U.S. and British officers acknowledged that the directive would not apply
to American Special Operations forces in Afghanistan, which are not under McKiernan's
command. As Carlotta Gall reported in May 2003 on an earlier incident in the
same district, many of the worst cases of civilian deaths from pre-targeted
strikes involved Special Operations forces.
Even as the briefing on the new directive was taking place, according to Burns,
yet another U.S. air strike, this time in Helmand Province, killed larger numbers
of civilians. The air strike destroyed three houses, killing between 25 and
30 civilians, mostly women and children, according to Afghan accounts reported
by Burns. The NATO command confirmed the strike and said it would investigate.
(Inter Press Service)