An airstrike a day won't keep insurgents at bay.

Military analysis.
Oct. 24 2007 7:02 PM

An Airstrike a Day Won't Keep Insurgents at Bay

It might mean fewer dead Americans, though.

The Sadr city neighbourhood of Baghdad, Iraq. Click image to expand.
Sadr City

This month has seen the smallest number of Americans killed in Iraq than any other month since March 2006. But the reasons may have less to do with progress in the war than with the way we're now fighting it.

Just 29 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq in October so far—down from 65 in September, 84 in August, 78 in July, 101 in June … You get the picture: Fewer, in most cases far fewer, than half as many American soldiers have died this month than in any previous month all year.

Advertisement

However, some perspective is warranted. First, all told, 2007 has been a horrible year for American lives lost in this war—832 to date, more than the 822 lost in all of 2006, and, by the time the year ends, almost certainly more than the 846 killed in 2005 or the 849 in 2004.

True, this month marks the second month in a row in which fatalities have declined, and that's noteworthy. But it doesn't quite constitute a trend, much less an occasion for celebrating.

Second, the slight increase in American fatalities this year, up until recently, is no surprise. When Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, announced a shift to a counterinsurgency strategy—in which his troops would move more aggressively against militias and live among the Iraqi people instead of hunkering down in their massive bases—he acknowledged that the strategy carried risks and that more American casualties would be one of the consequences.

So, what accounts for the decline in American deaths since the summer? It's hard to say for sure, but one little-reported cause is almost certainly a relative shift in U.S. tactics from fighting on the ground to bombing from the air.

On Sunday, U.S. soldiers were searching for a leader of a kidnapping ring in Baghdad's Sadr City. The soldiers came under fire from a building. Rather than engage in dangerous door-to-door conflict, they called in air support. Army helicopters flew overhead and shelled the building, killing several of the fighters but also at least six innocent civilians. * (The bad guy got away.)

In other words, though the shift means greater safety for our ground troops, it also generates more local hostility. Striking urban targets from the air inevitably means killing more innocent bystanders. This makes some of the bystanders' relatives yearn for vengeance. And it makes many Iraqis—relatives, neighbors, and others watching the news of the attack on television—less trusting of the American troops who are supposedly protecting them.

In a conventional war, these consequences might be deemed unavoidable side-effects. But in a counterinsurgency campaign, where the point is to sway the hearts and minds of the population, wreaking such damage is self-defeating.

The U.S. Army's field manual on counterinsurgency, which Gen. Petraeus supervised shortly before he returned to Iraq, makes the point explicitly:

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.

The old adage about warfare—that it's easy to kill people, hard to kill a particular person—is doubly true of aerial warfare. And in counterinsurgency warfare, the consequences are counterproductive.

This leads to the critical question: How, in recent months, are the Iraqi people perceiving the U.S. military presence? How are they gauging the chance of success? Do they welcome the troops, or do they want them to leave?

More on this tomorrow.

Correction, Oct. 25, 2007: The column originally stated that aircraft flew overhead and bombed the building. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.