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A Dire Warning on Afghan Air Support

Among the general public the only “Gary Anderson” who achieves any name recognition is probably the former NFL placekicker who had a remarkable, perfect season in 1998–making every field goal and point-after attempt. But among military cognoscenti another Gary Anderson, this one a retired Marine colonel, achieved legendary status by publishing on April 4, 2003, a Washington Post op-ed entitled “Baghdad’s fall may not be end,” which correctly predicted that an insurgency would follow in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s downfall.

It may seem obvious in retrospect, but no one else was publicly warning of the risk at the time. Although Anderson predicted a Baathist insurgency directed by Saddam–rather than what actually developed, Sunni and Shiite insurgencies directed primarily by religious fanatics–he was more right than anyone else. And for that reason if no other he deserves a careful hearing when he warns of the disastrous consequences of withdrawing American air support from the Afghan security forces after 2014.

Working as a civilian advisor in Afghanistan, Anderson saw for himself how much Afghan combat readiness degraded in one northern district when the local Afghan forces were denied coalition air support last year as part of an early transition effort:

Patrolling efforts nearly ceased. We learned through radio intercepts that kandak officers were cutting peace deals with the Taliban. By June, the security bubble had shrunk from a radius of 20 miles around the district capital to the confines of the capital.

The key missing element was not close air support–i.e., coalition aircraft to rain bombs and missiles on Taliban forces. Rather it was a lack of medevac (as I have previously noted), because Afghan troops operating in remote areas knew that the slightest wound could be fatal if there is no way to get to a hospital.

Anderson warns: “In my view, the Afghan Army in provinces such as Kandahar and Paktia will collapse as soon as transition is complete if ISAF doesn’t modify its transition strategy regarding air support until the Afghan Air Force is ready in 2017.”

Unfortunately, the odds are that the Afghan forces will indeed be denied air support, and before the end of 2014. Coalition commanders are pulling away air cover to teach the Afghans to be “self-sufficient,” and the trend is certain to accelerate after 2014, when President Obama will be tempted to confine the U.S. presence to a small number of advisers who never leave large Forward Operating Bases.

This is incredibly self-defeating if the U.S. government is serious about the mission of keeping the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies from returning to power. Yes, sending medevac aircraft out risks American casualties and increases the costs of sustaining operations. But the U.S. commitment still would be a lot less costly than it is today. If the U.S. refuses to provide any air support to Afghan forces, we’d better take seriously Anderson’s prediction that the Afghan military could disintegrate under pressure. And that would be the greatest cost of all–a military defeat.


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