The domestic uproar over civilians killed by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has intensified. The governor of Kunar province claimed that as many as 64 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in a series of incidents last month in the midst of ISAF operations there. ISAF has disputed this, but on March 1, nine Afghan boys were reportedly killed in an ISAF airstrike in Pech district. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said U.S. apologies were not enough and that civilian casualties were no longer acceptable at a meeting March 6 attended by ISAF and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan commander Gen. David Petraeus. (click here to enlarge image) While greater precautions have been taken with the application of close air and fire support, the application of airpower in particular has accelerated dramatically during Petraeus' tenure. This acceleration has been marked even taking into account the increased operational tempo as the surge of forces has reached full strength. But no matter how careful troops are, and even though operational experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan and improved training, procedures, technology and equipment have taken the precision of close air support to an entirely new level, the application of airpower, particularly close air support, is inherently dangerous. Its use in counterinsurgency among civilian populations entails an ever-present risk of collateral damage and civilian deaths. Not only have ISAF operations intensified, but the imperative to make rapid, demonstrable progress has meant operations are increasingly aggressive, aimed at achieving as much as possible as quickly as possible. And while the counterinsurgency-focused strategy has led to a more deliberate, coherent disposition of forces in the country (which are generally no longer in positions as vulnerable as Wanat and the Korengal), troops are still spread thin — and, in many cases, operating from small forward positions with limited defenses and patrolling in small units. Moreover, there are countervailing risks — hesitancy and restrictive rules of engagement could prevent the delivery of fire and close air support when it really is needed. (click here to enlarge image) The strong doctrinal and operational proclivity to turn to fire and close air support when contact is made with armed adversaries will remain. So long as this continues to be the case — and there is no indication of a major change as ISAF attempts to see through the strategy it has chosen and resourced — the United States and its allies will continue to call upon fire and close air support to dominate and win tactical engagements. There are two problems with this. The first is that winning tactical engagements does not guarantee victory in counterinsurgency. The second is that popular perceptions are more important than the facts of any particular incident involving civilian casualties — in Kunar or anywhere else — and in this matter, ISAF is not winning any hearts and minds. Both ISAF and the Taliban seek to pin the majority of civilian casualties on their adversary. There is some cause to believe that the Taliban are in fact responsible for the majority of civilian casualties, largely due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) aimed at ISAF and Afghan security forces — some 12 civilians were killed by a roadside IED in the Waza Khwa district of Paktika province March 6. But Afghans do not perceive this to be the case. Moreover, the use of airpower and special operations forces nighttime raids remain deeply unpopular with the Afghan population. Afghanistan at the Crossroads: Insights on the Conflict At some point, this antagonism can become such a negative influence that it can make such operations counterproductive. In the case of U.S. forces in the Korengal and then the wider Pech Valley, it eventually became clear that the single biggest problem in the area was the antagonism the locals felt for the foreign troops operating there. That antagonism more than anything else fueled locals' support for the Taliban. Removing U.S. forces from the area, the reasoning goes, simultaneously resolves the root of the problem and allows forces to be redeployed to areas more vital to the current strategy. Fire and close air support come with any deployment of U.S. and allied forces in a combat role. In terms of the efficacy of the counterinsurgency-focused strategy, the most important aspect of the issue of civilian casualties from the employment of firepower and airpower is the perception by the population that purportedly is at the center of the entire effort. That perception is clearly a negative influence that needs to be managed, but if it cannot be, making fire and closer air support counterproductive, the Korengal and Pech examples should be kept in mind.
The commander of Regional Command-East, Maj. Gen. John Campbell, referred specifically to the withdrawal from Pech when he spoke of freeing up forces from fixed positions — as was the case in both Korengal and Pech — to strengthen and redeploy forces in a more mobile and agile fashion along the eastern border with Pakistan. The provinces of Nuristan, Kunar, Laghman and Nangarhar will receive particular focus in attempts to interdict and disrupt the flow of Taliban and Haqqani fighters and materiel from Pakistan toward the capital of Kabul. Even though the United State is not getting everything it wants from Pakistan in terms of military operations on its side of the border against insurgents — and even then, Islamabad is often more focused on insurgents with a domestic agenda than the sort the United States wants Pakistan to be dealing with — it is increasingly clear that what Washington has gotten in terms of cooperation is about all it can reasonably expect in the near term. This has become especially clear as U.S. national and CIA contractor Raymond Davis is set to go on trial, which is merely the most visible symptom of a deterioration in American-Pakistani relations. What further interdiction of cross-border traffic ISAF hopes to achieve will have to be achieved through existing means, largely unmanned aerial vehicle strikes, in Pakistan and efforts on the Afghan side of the border. Yet with American Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying he expects ISAF to be "well-positioned" for a modest drawdown of forces beginning this summer, in line with the July 2011 deadline, it is a reminder that the U.S.-led effort is rapidly approaching the point where it will need to do ever more with ever less troops. And this comes as ISAF forces across the country are bracing for the annual resurgence of Taliban operations as spring approaches.