The New York Times has run a curious op-ed by a writer I’ve never heard of: Lara M. Dadkhah, who is identified simply as an “intelligence analyst” for some unnamed defense consulting firm and also apparently a current or recent grad student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service (h/t Glenn Greenwald). In it, she repeats the standard canard heard from a handful of right-wingers who accuse Gen. Stanley McChrystal of putting his troops at undue risk by limiting their use of airpower.
This is a serious charge to make against one of the most respected generals in the Army, and one who has been closely associated with some of the most dangerous and risky special operations that the military carries out. Anyone who flings around this accusation better have some good evidence. But Dadkhah seriously undercuts her case with sweeping overgeneralizations.
She claims, for instance, that “air support to American and Afghan forces has been all but grounded by concerns about civilian casualties” and that “American and NATO military leaders — worried by Taliban propaganda claiming that air strikes have killed an inordinate number of civilians, and persuaded by ‘hearts and minds’ enthusiasts that the key to winning the war is the Afghan population’s goodwill — have largely relinquished the strategic advantage of American air dominance.”
In the first place, she entirely neglects one of the key “strategic advantages of American air dominance” — namely, the ability to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance of the battlefield, which gives troops on the ground a huge advantage in terms of knowing where their enemies are. Other advantages of airpower that she neglects to mention are the ability to do aerial resupply and medivac. All three are vital to the conduct of operations, in fact probably more vital than the ability to call in air strikes. But even if you stick to kinetic strikes from the air, her evidence is weak. She writes:
While the number of American forces in Afghanistan has more than doubled since 2008, to nearly 70,000 today, the critical air support they get has not kept pace. According to my analysis of data compiled by the United States military, close air support sorties, which in Afghanistan are almost always unplanned and in aid of troops on the ground who are under intense fire, increased by just 27 percent during that same period
Even granting that those figures are accurate, what makes her think that they are the result of directives designed to limit air strikes? Might it not simply be a case of the troop presence growing faster than the number of aircraft they have available to support them? U.S. forces in Afghanistan have long been under-resourced in terms of air support simply because there were not enough aircraft to go around, and until last year Iraq had top priority. That is changing, but it is taking a while to build up Afghanistan’s primitive infrastructure to create runways and other facilities that can support a large number of aircraft. The task is all the more daunting because Afghanistan is much more spread out than Iraq, so aircraft have to be based all over the country to be available on-call within a few minutes of the start of a firefight. In fact, Dadkhah’s own figures suggest that there has been only a modest decline in the number of air strikes called in: “Pentagon data show that the percentage of sorties sent out that resulted in air strikes has also declined, albeit modestly, to 5.6 percent from 6 percent.”
Dadkhah is even more off-base when she denies the obvious: that sometimes excessive force can be harmful to mission accomplishment in a counterinsurgency. She writes: “So in a modern refashioning of the obvious — that war is harmful to civilian populations — the United States military has begun basing doctrine on the premise that dead civilians are harmful to the conduct of war. The trouble is, no past war has ever supplied compelling proof of that claim. ” No compelling data? Really? Perhaps she might examine the case of the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Soviets killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans and in the process lost the war by turning the population against them. That is a mistake that McChrystal is wise not to repeat.