Could airstrikes save lives in Afghanistan?

By Charles J. Dunlap Jr.
Friday, October 22, 2010

Reports this month that airstrikes are being used to push Taliban leaders toward the negotiation table suggest that the controversial policy restricting airpower in the Afghan war may be ripe for review. Indeed, new data indicate that a reevaluation cannot come soon enough.

Since airstrikes were limited in June 2009, Afghan civilian deaths have skyrocketed -- a staggering 31 percent increase in 2010 over last year's record-breaking numbers. Sadly, casualties among U.S. troops and others in the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) also have reached all-time highs. Notwithstanding the enormous human cost, a U.N. report released in June shows security in the country continuing to deteriorate.

Every missed opportunity to strike Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters leaves them alive to kill ever-growing numbers of innocent Afghan civilians as well as the young American and allied troops sent to protect them. And the terrorists live on to threaten our security here.

Any civilian death is heartbreaking, but research shows airstrikes are rarely the cause. According to a U.S.-sponsored study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) made public in July, airstrikes accounted for only 6 percent of the deaths of Afghan women and children attributed to ISAF forces. This matches an equally low percentage found in a study of the Iraq war published in 2009 by the New England Journal of Medicine.

In other words, the vast majority of civilian deaths in both Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, are not the result of airstrikes. Consider this: The NBER report shows that more than 2 1/2 times as many Afghan women and children were killed in traffic accidents with ISAF vehicles as died as a result of airstrikes.

And don't believe the claim that civilian deaths automatically generate more enemies. The Taliban itself has disproved that theory. Although insurgents caused almost 76 percent of the civilian deaths, according to a U.N. report published in August, Taliban strength is reportedly nevertheless increasing.

In fact, the NBER report fails to show the militants suffering any tangible ill effects from the civilian deaths they generate. Similarly, in April, journalist Ben Arnoldy reported in the Christian Science Monitor that "there's little indication" that Taliban-caused civilian deaths "have backfired on the movement so far."

Additionally, Afghan expert Jeremy Shapiro told a Brookings Institution audience last fall that although the Afghan government highlights civilian casualties to gain leverage with the ISAF, in his experience many local Afghan officials "tend actually not to be too concerned with this to a degree." He believes that while the civilian casualty issue "clearly resonates very strongly [in the U.S.] and in Europe . . . [it is] not clear that Afghans actually see this as a key issue."

Regardless, civilian casualties are rightly a key issue for the United States. Airpower is obviously not the whole answer, but subjecting ruthless adversaries to the full weight of it can eliminate many of the most dangerous threats to blameless civilians.

Moreover, what is clear from a June poll of Afghans in the crucial provinces of Kandahar and Helmand is that they overwhelmingly abhor foreign troops in their midst. Since our ground-centric strategy is designed to do just that, resentment will only intensify as the troop surge continues. It is the presence of what many Afghans view as foreign occupiers, not civilian deaths from airstrikes, that most unites and incentivizes the Taliban.

Airpower reduces the need to put our precious soldiers in the path of the improvised explosive devices that are killing and maiming more ISAF troops than anything else. And airpower works: The surge in Iraq in 2007 succeeded only when it was accompanied by a fivefold increase in airstrikes.

Of course, we need to strictly follow the law and save innocent people whenever we can, but if we really want to reduce civilian deaths, as well as the deaths of the troops we send in harm's way, then as the Obama administration reevaluates its Afghan policy, we ought to reconsider the wisdom of leashing the weapon the insurgents fear the most: airpower.

The writer, a retired Air Force general, is a visiting professor at Duke University Law School and a member of the board of advisers for the Center for a New American Security.

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