An Airstrike a Day Won't Keep Insurgents at Bay
It might mean fewer dead Americans, though.
An air strike can cause collateral damage that turns people against the host-nation government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory. Even when justified under the law of war, bombings that result in civilian casualties can bring media coverage that works to the insurgents' benefits. … For these reasons, commanders should consider the use of air strikes carefully during [counterinsurgency] operations, neither disregarding them outright nor employing them excessively.
Yet since the surge began and Gen. Petraeus shifted the strategy to counterinsurgency, the number of U.S. airstrikes has soared.
From January to September of this year, according to unclassified data, U.S. Air Force pilots in Iraq have flown 996 sorties that involved dropping munitions. By comparison, in all of 2006, they flew just 229 such sorties—one-quarter as many. In 2005, they flew 404; in 2004, they flew 285.
In other words, in the first nine months of 2007, Air Force planes dropped munitions on targets in Iraq more often than in the previous three years combined.
More telling still, the number of airstrikes soared most dramatically at about the same time that U.S. troop fatalities declined. (Click here for month-by-month figures.)
It's not clear how many Iraqi civilians have been killed or injured as a result of these airstrikes. (Estimating civilian deaths is a difficult enterprise in any war, especially this one, where so much of the country is inaccessible.) However, it's a fair assessment that the numbers have risen substantially this past year.
The research group Iraq Body Count estimates that 417 Iraqi civilians died from January to September of this year as a result of airstrikes. This is only a bit less than the estimated 452 deaths caused by airstrikes in the previous two years combined. (These numbers are almost certainly too low, but they probably reflect the trends. For more on the numbers and on IBC's methodology, click here.)
It is a natural temptation to try to fight the Iraqi insurgents from the air. The fact is, the "surge"—an extra 30,000 U.S. troops sent to Iraq on top of the existing 130,000—was never enough to make a decisive difference. As the troops assumed a more aggressive posture against the insurgents, it was expected that they would find themselves in difficult spots, that they would take more casualties; and one thing American soldiers are trained to do in such circumstances is to call in air support. No one can blame them for protecting themselves.
However, air support has its limits. The senior officers of the U.S. Air Force, seeing which way the winds are blowing in modern warfare and Pentagon war planning, have been trying to figure out how to adapt to the art and science of counterinsurgency. Recently, they commissioned the RAND Corp. to come up with ideas. The resulting report emphasized the role that the Air Force could play in providing mobility, logistics, and medical evacuation. However, on Page 147 of the 150-page report, the authors delivered the bad news:
Although USAF [U.S. Air Force] can deliver relatively small weapons with great precision, it still lacks options to neutralize individual adversaries in close proximity to noncombatants or friendly personnel, to control crowds, or to prevent movement of people on foot through complex urban terrain.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Sadr City by Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty. Photograph of F-16 in Iraq on Slate's home page by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images.