Air Power and the ‘Accidents’ of War

July 15th, 2007 - by admin

Tom Engelhardt / – 2007-07-15 21:13:35

The Time Has Come for an Honest
Discussion of Air Power

(July 09, 2007) — The first news stories about the most notorious massacre of the Vietnam War were picked up the morning after from an Army publicity release. These proved fairly typical for the war. On its front page, the New York Times labeled the operation in and around a village called My Lai 4 (or “Pinkville,” as it was known to US forces in the area) a significant success.

“American troops caught a North Vietnamese force in a pincer movement on the central coastal plain yesterday, killing 128 enemy soldiers in day-long fighting.” United Press International termed what happened there an “impressive victory,” and added a bit of patriotic color: “The Vietcong broke and ran for their hide-out tunnels. Six-and-a-half hours later, ‘Pink Village’ had become ‘Red, White and Blue Village.”

All these dispatches from the “front” were, of course, military fairy tales. (There were no reporters in the vicinity.) It took over a year for a former GI named Ronald Ridenhour, who had heard about the bloody massacre from participants, and a young former AP reporter named Seymour Hersh working in Washington for a news service no one had ever heard of, to break the story, revealing that “red, white, and blue village” had just been red village — the red of Vietnamese peasant blood.

Over 400 elderly men, women, children, and babies had been slaughtered there by Charlie Company of Task Force Barker in a nearly day-long rampage.

Things move somewhat faster these days — after all, Vietnamese villagers and local officials didn’t have access to cell phones to tell their side of the slaughter — but from the military point of view, the stories these last years have all still seemed to start the same way.

Whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, they have been presented by US military spokesmen, or in military press releases, as straightforward successes. The newspaper stories that followed would regularly announce that 17, or 30, or 65 “Taliban insurgents” or “suspected insurgents,” or “al-Qaeda gunmen” had been killed in battle after “air strikes” were called in. These stories recorded daily military victories over a determined, battle-hardened enemy.

Most of the time, that was the beginning and end of the matter: Air strike; dead enemies; move on to the next day’s bloody events.

When it came to Iraq, such air-strike successes generally did not make it into the American press as stories at all, but as scattered, ho-hum paragraphs (based on military announcements) in round-ups of a given day’s action focused on far more important matters — IEDs, suicide car bombs, mortar attacks, sectarian killings. In many cases, air strikes in that country simply went unreported.

From time to time, however, another version of what happened when air strikes were called in on the rural areas of Afghanistan, or on heavily populated neighborhoods in Iraq’s cities and towns, filtered out. In this story, noncombatants died, often in sizeable numbers. In the last few weeks “incidents” like this have been reported with enough regularity in Afghanistan to become a modest story in their own right.

In such news stories, a local caregiver or official or village elder is reached by phone in some distant, reporter-unfriendly spot and recounts a battle in which, by the time the planes arrive, the enemy has fled the scene, or had never been there, or was present but, as is generally the case in guerrilla wars, in close proximity to noncombatants going about their daily lives in their own homes and fields.

Such accounts record a grim harvest of dead civilians — and they almost invariably have a repeated tagline when it comes to those dead: “including women and children.” In an increasing number of cases recently, reports on the carnage have taken not over a year, or weeks, or even days to exfiltrate the scene, but have actually beaten the military success story onto the news page.

In the past, when such civilian slaughters were reported, often days or even weeks after the initial military account of the battle, what followed also had a pattern to it. The first responses from the US military would be outright denials (undoubtedly on the assumption that, without reporters present, the accounts of Afghan peasants or Iraqi slum dwellers would carry little weight).

Normally, given the competing he says/she says frame for the reports and the inability of journalists to make it to the scene of the reputed slaughter, sooner or later the story would simply fade away.

If, against all odds, evidence of civilian deaths piled up, the military would, in strategic fashion, fall back from one heavily defended position to the next. The numbers of noncombatant dead or wounded would be questioned and lowered. Regrets would be offered. Explanations would be proffered. It was perhaps an “accident” (a missile missed its target or faulty local intelligence was responsible); or it wasn’t an accident, because “the bad guys” meant it to happen as it did. (In their cowardly way, they had turned the civilian population into “human shields,” thus causing the deaths in question when US forces reacted in “self-defense.”)

If the story nonetheless persisted, an “investigation” (by the military, of course) would be announced — again, meant to fade away. In rare cases, “consolation payments” and limited apologies would be offered. In extreme instances, when the killings of civilians were especially grotesque and the result of boots-on-the-ground — as at Haditha — lower-ranking soldiers might finally be brought up on charges.

With the exception of a friendly fire incident in which two US National Guard pilots killed four Canadian soldiers and injured six others on the ground in Afghanistan, air strikes were exempt from such charges, no matter what had happened. (In the Canadian case, the US pilot, originally threatened with a court-martial on manslaughter charges, was found guilty of “dereliction of duty,” reprimanded, and fined $5,600.)

American (and NATO) officials regularly make the point that the enemy’s barbarism — and from car-bombs to a six year-old boy sent to attack Afghan soldiers wearing a suicide vest, their acts have indeed been barbarous — is always intentional; the killing of noncombatants by American planes is always an “inadvertent” incident, an “accident,” and so, of course, the regrettable “collateral damage” of modern warfare.

Recently, however, in Afghanistan, such isolated incidents from US or NATO (often still US) air attacks have been occurring in startling numbers. They have, in fact, become so commonplace that, in the news, they begin to blur into what looks, more and more, like a single, ongoing airborne slaughter of civilians. Protest over the killings of noncombatants from the air, itself a modest story, is on the rise. A

fghan President Hamid Karzai, dubbed “the mayor of Kabul,” has bitterly and repeatedly complained about NATO and US bombing policies. ACBAR, an umbrella organization for Afghan and international relief and human rights organizations, has received attention for claiming that marginally more civilians have died this year at the hands of the Western powers than the Taliban; and, most recently, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has made a “‘strong’ appeal to military commanders in Afghanistan to avoid civilian casualties.”

In all of this, the weakening of the American and NATO position in Afghanistan, and of the American one in Iraq, continue to play crucial roles — while these repeated air-power “incidents” lead into conceptual territory that is simply never touched upon in our mainstream media.

A Blur of Civilian Deaths
But first things first. Let’s start with a partial list of recently reported air power “incidents” (dates approximate), all of which resulted in significant civilian casualties:

June 18: An “airstrike against a suspected al-Qaeda hideout” in the southeastern Afghan province of Paktika is ordered after “nefarious activities” have been observed at the site, which includes a mosque and a madrassa (religious school). Almost immediately, news arrives that seven children have been killed in the attack. The initial response: “Maj. Chris Belcher, spokesman for the coalition, said there had been no sign of children at the facility in the hours before the strike, and blamed al-Qaeda for trying to use a civilian facility as a shield.” (According to another spokesman, Sgt. 1st Class Dean Welch, “If we knew that there were children inside the building, there was no way that that air strike would have occurred.”)

Later, up to 100 civilians are reported to have been killed in related fighting, though the figures vary with the news story. Subsequently, US military officials admit that the air strike “likely missed its primary target,” an al-Qaeda commander, and that “contrary to previous statements, the US military knew there were children at the compound.” Thinking they had a key al-Qaeda figure in their sights, they launched the attack anyway.

June 21: A US air strike aimed at a “booby-trapped house” in the Iraqi city of Baquba misses its target and “accidentally” hits another house, wounding 11 civilians, according to the US military. The incident is declared “under investigation.”

In the larger Baquba incursion, Operation Arrowhead Ripper, part of the President’s “surge plan” for the country, civilian casualties from the air (and ground) are evidently significantly more widespread than generally reported in the American media. A BBC report notes at least 12 civilian casualties, including three women, on the operation’s first day and quotes the head of the city’s emergency service as saying that there were “certainly more…. but ambulances were being prevented by US troops from going in to evacuate them.” (A Sunni political party in Prime Minister Maliki’s government claims 350 dead civilians in Baquba, mainly due to helicopter attacks.)

Joshua Partlow of the Washington Post, reporting on the Baquba operation, quotes Iraqi refugee Amer Hussein Jasm, a refugee from a nearby town, saying: “The airplanes have been shooting all the houses and people are getting scared, so they ran away.” Partlow also quotes an American lieutenant threatening Iraqis his unit has picked up: “Our planes can blow up this whole city. They have that capability. If we didn’t care about you guys, we wouldn’t place ourselves in danger walking around trying to separate the bad guys from the good guys. When you guys tell us where the bad guys are, you keep innocent people from being hurt.”

June 21: “At least 25 civilians, including nine women, three infants and an elderly village mullah,” are killed in “crossfire” in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan when US air strikes are called in. (“‘In choosing to conduct such attacks in this location at this time, the risk to civilians was probably deliberate,’ [NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Mike] Smith said [of the Taliban]. ‘It is this irresponsible action that may have led to casualties.'”)

June 22: The US military announces that it has killed “17 al-Qaeda gunmen” infiltrating an Iraqi village north of Baquba. (“Iraqi police were conducting security operations in and around the village when Coalition attack helicopters from the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade and ground forces from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, observed more than 15 armed men attempting to circumvent the IPs and infiltrate the village…. The attack helicopters, armed with missiles, engaged and killed 17 al-Qaeda gunmen and destroyed the vehicle they were using.”)

A BBC report later reveals that the dead are 11 village guards (“some of their bodies cut into small pieces by the munitions used against them”). They were assisting the Iraqi police in trying to protect their village from possible al-Qaeda attacks when rocketed and strafed by American helicopters.

June 22: “NATO and US-led coalition forces killed 60 insurgents [in Afghanistan] near the border with Pakistan, in what was described as the largest insurgent formation crossing the region in six months, the military said Saturday.” That was how the story was first presented, before news of civilian casualties started to trickle out. Later, more defensively, US Commander Col. Martin P. Schweitzer would insist that his forces had only targeted “bad guys”: “These individuals clearly had weapons and used them against our aircraft as well as shooting rockets against our positions,” he said. “This required their removal from the battle-space.”

The first accounting of noncombatant dead, reportedly from a US rocket, includes at least five men, three women, and one child, according to a Pakistani Army spokesman. These deaths occurred on the Pakistani side of the border. (According to the Pakistanis, civilians also died on the Afghan side of the border.) This figure is later raised to 12; the place hit identified as a “small hotel”; and the airpower identified as possibly B-52s and Apache helicopters. A report in the Egyptian paper al-Ahram adds: “Sources in Pakistan’s tribal areas…. say 31 of the supposed slain ‘insurgents’ were in fact Pakistan tribesmen and their families, including women and children.”

June 30: In air strikes, again in Helmand province, munitions “slammed into civilian homes.” At least 30 insurgents and civilians are initially reported to have been killed, “including women and children.” These figures later rise precipitously. (“‘More than 100 people have been killed. But they weren’t Taliban. The Taliban were far away from there,’ said Wali Khan, a member of parliament who represents the area.”) Other reports have 45 civilians and 62 insurgents dying. NATO spokesman later claim civilian deaths were “an order of magnitude less” and that Taliban fighters were firing from well-dug trenches and “continuing their tactic of using women and children as human shields in close combat.”

Given the ongoing uproar over civilian casualties in Afghanistan, an investigation is launched. According to Haji Zahir, “a tribal elder who said he had been in touch with residents of bombed villages”: “People tried to escape from the area with their cars, trucks and tractors, and the coalition airplanes bombed them because they thought they were the enemy fleeing. They told me that they had buried 170 bodies so far.” Thirty-five villagers “fleeing in a tractor-trailer” were reportedly hit from the air — with only two survivors, an old man and his severely wounded son. NATO (American) spokesmen beg to disagree: “The allies returned fire and called in air support, aimed at ‘clearly identified firing positions.'”

July 2: An intense mortar barrage aimed at a US base near the largely Shiite city of Diwaniya leads to air strikes by two F-16s that reportedly kill 10 civilians along with Shia militiamen. Among them, it is said, are six children under the age of 12. (“‘Coalition forces are reviewing the incident to ensure that appropriate and proportionate force was used in responding to the intense attack,’ a US statement said, without referring to any Iraqi casualties.”)

New reports of deaths from air strikes in Afghanistan continue to arrive — 108 noncombatants “including women and children” killed in Farah Province on July 6th and 33 killed in Kunar Province, “11 of them on Thursday [July 5th] during a bombardment, and 25 more on Friday as they attended a funeral for the deceased.” American denials are issued and Taliban propaganda blamed. (“[A] US official said Taliban fighters are forcing villagers to say civilians died in fighting — whether or not it is true.”)

Air War: Afghanistan
Even from such a partial list — undoubtedly lacking information from Iraq, where the air war has been notoriously overlooked by American reporters — a pattern can be seen. But beyond the loss of innocent lives (always, when finally admitted, officially “regretted” by the US military), why should any of this matter?

Let’s start this way: Barring an unexpected change of policy, some version of this list of “errant” incidents, multiplied many times over, is likely to represent the future for both Afghanistan and Iraq. The obvious math of the military manpower situation in both countries tells us this is so — as does history.

In Afghanistan this year, Taliban suicide attacks alone have increased by 230%, while Iraq-style roadside IEDs are also a growing threat. In eastern Afghanistan, where the US leads NATO operations, “militant attacks” rose 250% compared to May 2006, according to the US military. NATO and American troop levels, now somewhere in the range of 46,000-50,000 — approximately 20,000 of whom are from European countries and Canada — remain woefully inadequate for securing the country (if such a thing were even possible) and NATO casualties are on the rise.

Afghanistan, after all, is far larger than Iraq and is being garrisoned by a combined force less than a third the size of the occupying force in that country, which itself is universally considered inadequate to the task. It’s a fair bet that the various European powers (and the Canadians) are wondering how they ended up in this distant war in a land that has historically been a graveyard for conquerors and occupiers. In Canada and various European countries, as casualties rise and success of any sort seems beyond reach, the Afghan deployments are becoming increasingly unpopular.

Don’t expect reinforcements from NATO countries any time soon; while the US Army and Marines, already stretched beyond capacity by the recent “surge” in Iraq, are probably incapable of reinforcing their Afghan contingent in any significant way. By elimination, this leaves one weapon in the American/NATO arsenal, air power, which is, in fact, ever more in use in response to a surge in Taliban ambushes and limited takeovers of villages (and even entire districts) in the Afghan south.

As the Europeans are well aware, air power — given the civilian casualties that invariably follow in its wake — is intensely counterproductive in a guerrilla war. “Every civilian dead means five new Taliban,” was the way a British officer just returned from Helmand Province put it recently.

However, an air-power strategy fits American predilections to a tee. As a Reuters piece aptly headlined the matter, the Americans in Afghanistan are “hooked on air power.” Americans have long been so. After all, with the singular exception of various Central American proxy wars during the Reagan years, air war has essentially been the American way of war since World War II. The Bush administration fought its Afghan War of 2001 largely from the air in support of the well-paid-off ground forces of the Northern Alliance, aided by Special Forces troops and lots of CIA money in suitcases. (In Iraq, of course, the invasion of March 2003 started with a massive air attack meant to “decapitate” Saddam Hussein’s regime — it did no such thing — while having the side benefit of shocking-and-awing hostile states in the region.)

Even after American ground forces moved in, Afghanistan has never ceased to be an Air Force war. B-1 bombers have been called in relatively regularly there (unlike in Iraq) and air strikes in the Afghan countryside have become a commonplace. By November 2006, David Cloud of the New York Times — who flew on a B-1 mission over the country (and noted that a similar flight the week he went up had “dropped its entire payload of eight 2,000-pound bombs and six 500-pound bombs after ground units called for help”) — reported that the use of air power had risen sharply there. More than 2,000 air strikes had been called in during the previous six months, with a concomitant rise in civilian casualties. In addition, the Air Force’s full contingent of B-1s had been “shifted over the summer from the British air base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to a Middle Eastern airfield closer to Afghanistan,” cutting mission flight time by a critical two hours.

Though no post-November 2006 figures are available, the recent spate of reported “incidents” confirms that missions have risen again this year, along with noncombatant deaths. According to Laura King of the Los Angeles Times, in a piece typically headlined, “Errant Afghan Civilian Deaths Surge”: “More than 500 Afghan civilians have been reported killed this year, and the rate has dramatically increased in the last month.” Local dissatisfaction and bitterness are also noticeably on the rise.

The Karzai government remains weak, ineffective, and corrupt, while Taliban strength grows in southern Afghanistan and across the border in the Pakistani tribal areas. There, for instance, Jane Perlez and Ismail Khan of the New York Times reported that, according to a secret document from the Pakistani Interior Ministry, “the Taliban have recently begun bombing oil tank trucks that pass through the Khyber area near the border on their way to Afghanistan for United States and NATO forces. A convoy of 12 of the trucks was hit with grenades and gutted on Thursday night in the third such incident in a month.”

To all of this, air power is the “NATO” answer for the present and the future, the only answer in sight, however counterproductive it may prove to be.

According to a report in the British press, American General Dan McNeill, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has already been dubbed “Bomber McNeill” (and it’s not meant to be a compliment). Despite periodic “reviews of procedures,” nor is his strategy — call in the planes — likely to change any time soon. The US military (and NATO officials) have essentially confirmed this. Despite a growing chorus of criticism in Afghanistan (and among NATO allies), Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel has praised the “extensive procedures” in place “to avoid civilian casualties.” “We think the procedures that we have in place are good — they work,” he told reporters. US spokespeople have recently indicated that NATO is not about to “change its use of air power against the Taliban.”

So, in Afghanistan, the future is already clear enough. More Taliban attacks mean more air strikes mean more dead noncombatants (“including women and children”) mean more alienated, angry Afghanis in a spiral of devolution to which no end can yet be foreseen.

Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt

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