Debunking the Taliban’s ‘air power advantage’

by Julia Mahlejd on 2/18/2010 · 14 comments

ISAF is doing itself a disservice by pandering to those who get their knickers in a knot about civilian casualties and by therefore diminishing its use of close-air support, its strongest advantage over the insurgents in Afghanistan. This is the gist of an op-ed in today’s New York Times by Lara Dadkhah.

This logic may work at a tactical level, but on the long-term strategic one I believe it does not.

Perceptions are powerful – even (especially!) if they are based on emotions not fact. The use of air power causes the least number of civilian casualty incidents and kills or wounds the least number of Afghans per year. But when such incidents do occur they are invariably spectacular (and not helped by ISAF being slow to show how insurgents use human shields and by Karzai immediately jumping on the anti-ISAF bandwagon). No wonder they cause the most outrage. And that outrage diminishes Afghan support for the mission. What is single biggest factor in the success of counter-insurgency? Support of the people. Ergo….in the long term passing up the tactical advantage of superior air power has the strategic benefit of increasing public support for the ISAF presence.

Gen McChrystal is the third COMISAF I have seen in action but the only one I have seen walk the walk of winning popular Afghan support. He is doing this not only by reducing use of close air support but also targeting the actual causes of civilian casualties – road traffic accidents caused by reckless convoy drivers and escalation of force incidents caused by trigger happy 19 year olds who have been taught every Afghan is a terrorist. Even though these two types of incidents generally cause only one or two deaths at a time, they are much more common and constitute the bulk of Afghan civilian deaths and CIVCAS incidents. McChrystal’s COIN Guidance and tactical driving directive are just two publicly available documents that testify to a concerted effort at diminishing both actual civilian casualty numbers and improving public perceptions of them, showing that ISAF is perhaps finally beginning to understand the strategic importance of getting Afghans on-side. Holding back on dropping some pretty costly and sophisticated munitions on mud huts is a small price to pay.

(And damn you Josh Foust for beating me to this punch!)


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Julia has lived and worked in Afghanistan since 2008.

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{ 14 comments }

Joshua Foust February 18, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Never! We’re teammates not rivals!

Rugged 2 February 18, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Great post, but “trigger happy 19 year olds who have been taught every Afghan is a terrorist” is a pretty unfair and inaccurate characterization of the troops and detracts from what is otherwise a well-reasoned argument. Fear of being killed or wounded, or worse, fear of letting an insurgent do the same to one’s buddy, is probably a more dominant driver of unnecessary escalations of force. Unless there is an “every Afghan is a terrorist” indoctrination program in the US military that I’m unaware of.

Fletch February 18, 2010 at 10:38 pm

McChrystal looks like a deer caught in the headlights. He can’t be the author of this strategy. Not smart enough, IMO. Career military only know how to smash and burn bc that has been their job forever. However, that doesn’t mean this latest wrinkle will work wherever it came from either. Might be too late to salvage a horrible mistake. I just hope the Afg fighters go back in their caves so the US can leave.

M Shannon February 18, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Reducing the use of air power and artillery should reduce the number of innocent civilians killed. But is it too late to get the locals (those who aren’t contractors, politicians or otherwise on the payroll) to be happy with NATO? I suspect so.

It will also probably mean fewer Taliban casualties and give them more confidence to stick around and fight. This will lead to more NATO casualties (they are up ~90% over this time last year) and reduce stomach for the war, particularly in the UK. Fewer insurgent casualties should also make it easier for the Taliban to recruit and retain. More NATO casualties and limiting firepower available should result in an reluctance of low level commanders to go into harms way.

The result will be further stalemate that plays into the hands of the Taliban.

anan February 19, 2010 at 1:18 am

Shannon, the ANA are already far more popular and respected than the Taliban almost everywhere in Afghanistan, except for maybe in Nuristan and Zabul (if you believe Hoh.)

The ANA is doing much better recruiting Pashtuns, including Helmand Pashtuns.

The 4 year academy class that started in January 2010 was the most high quality class ever seated. Unfortunately the ANA only had funding to accept 450 in the latest class.

The first two sets of 4 year graduates are by all accounts performing well in the field.

You are in Nangarhar. The accounts I have seen is that the Taliban aren’t liked in Nangarhar at all. Neither are ISAF; not that there are many in the province or that they are even needed in the province. For that matter, there aren’t many ANA in the province either. Maybe just 3-2-201, which isn’t that great of a battalion. [Although 6-2-201 might also be in the province, suspect that they have been sent to more dangerous waters.]
Nangarhar has a competent governor, competent provincial government and competent police. Not to mention a good NDS network. All of them are more popular and respected than either the Taliban or ISAF.

ISAF doesn’t need to deploy to Nangarhar to defeat the Taliban, all they need to do is increase the capacity of existing ANSF and GIRoA institutions; which seems eminently achievable.

Nangarhar is one of the most educated and sophisticated Afghan provinces; its possibilities for economic growth and further improving education are good. Nangarhar Pashtuns seem more immune to Taliban appeal than almost any other Pashtuns. It is hard to imagine the Taliban ever coming back to power in Nangarhar, unless things go badly wrong in Pakistan.

The extent of your pessimism is a little puzzling. Why do you think the ANSF and GIRoA can’t win?

I thought about your comments about low ANA recruiting among educated Nangarhar residents. Could part of the reason be geographic and cultural? Is the military just not a profession that educated Nangarhar residents seriously consider?

Not that this is a problem. Afghanistan now has 45,000 freshman a year versus 1 thousand or so in 2001. These other colleges need students too. 🙂
And given how few applicants the Afghan 4 year academies accept, they are already turning down far too many qualified applicants as is.

Could part of the reason more Jalalabad Pashtuns don’t want to join the ANA be because they don’t see the point? Maybe they don’t think the Taliban can win or threaten them; so why join the ANA when higher paying carriers are available?

Not that this matters all that much from a national perspective. The ANA has plenty of applicants; with more than 20,000 in basic training or unit field setting training as we speak. The ANA is producing 1400 worth of new unit structure a week; in addition to adding force to existing ANA structure. ANA trains about 7 thousand a month.

[Before you mention it Shannon; I acknowledge that the ANP are way behind 😉 ]

Obama asked for $11.6 billion in ANSF funding for fiscal 2011. Other countries are also contributing greatly to the ANSF. [$2 billion in fiscal 2011 CERP funding and billions more in USAID long term development funding are in addition to this; as are economic grants from many other countries.]

With all these resources and all this momentum (Baradar, Kunduz and Baghlan shadow governors arrested; ANA successes in Helmand); how can the Taliban win? Why can’t ISAF successfully train, fund, equip and advise the ANSF and civilian GIRoA institutions?

The only way I can see the Taliban winning is if something unexpectedly bad happens in Pakistan.

Fletch February 19, 2010 at 9:47 am

Anan: The Taliban doesn’t have to win, of course. The US just needs to continue its current path and we will lose. Just a matter of time.

Joe Harlan February 19, 2010 at 12:52 am

“Fear of being killed or wounded, or worse,…”

I’m tempted to whip out the Yoda quote about fear leading to anger, anger leading to hate, etc. Then again, I went through a crash course version of some of the same training, and was there for a year, so agree that the fear is real. However, that’s precisely the point: long story short is that they still escalate far too quickly, and much of it has to do with what they’ve been told.

The pressure has been turned up during training these 19 year old (average age) soldiers and Marines; they *have* been told that they should suspect everyone, that every place is hostile, and they are most certainly taught that it is better to shoot first and ask questions later. This is undoubtedly the right thing in conventional war, where mass formations and a clearly identified enemy are present. This isn’t that.

Sailani February 19, 2010 at 4:02 am

“McChrystal’s COIN Guidance and tactical driving directive are just two publicly available documents that testify to a concerted effort at diminishing both actual civilian casualty numbers and improving public perceptions of them, showing that ISAF is perhaps finally beginning to understand the strategic importance of getting Afghans on-side.”

Virtually identical to McKiernan’s directives to be fair…

Julia M February 19, 2010 at 9:33 am

Yup, they are – but the difference is that McChrystal is actively implementing his and really trying to get an attitude shift within the ISAF forces whereas McKiernan did not (at least as far as i have seen)

M Shannon February 19, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Anan: I simply do not believe the figures given for ANSF numbers and I don’t believe stories about the capability of the ANA. Eight years into the war and the main brigade in Kandahar still doesn’t have a HQ beyond the commander’s cell phone and a six foot table sans maps. If the ANA was even mildly competent it wouldn’t need an influx of basic trainers who can’t speak Afghan languages would it? Check out the latest 60 Minutes report to see “commandos” in action (although the ODA incompetence is even more disturbing).

I don’t believe the Taliban can “win” in the sense of Dien Bien Phu or Saigon (I presume US air power would be used to turn the balance in any major fighting but then again so did the French and ARVN ) but they could “win” like the IRA: an armistice that sees NATO leave and senior Taliban become government ministers until a coup d’etat- by the Taliban or the military and a resumption of the civil war.

Until NATO leaves there is no incentive for the mass of Afghans who are against the Taliban to fight. NATO can do the fighting while the educated and monied classes (the parallel in America between Ivy League grads and trailer park inhabitants is exactly the same) sit back and rake in the cash or escape to the West or Dubai.

NATO will tire of this. I give it five years and one more presidential election for both the US and Afghanistan and a slow withdraw after arranging some face saving temporary cease fire. Only the US and Brits and perhaps a few of the smaller nations that the US pays for will be here at that time. See Iraq for the model.

anan February 19, 2010 at 1:20 pm

“Anan: I simply do not believe the figures given for ANSF numbers and I don’t believe stories about the capability of the ANA.” Please be precise about what exactly you don’t believe; preferably by metric or unit. You are in Nangarhar, which doesn’t exactly have or need capable ANA or numerous ANA (or ISAF for that matter.) The ANP, NDS and governor seem to have matters in hand where you are.

How would you critique 203 ANA Corps in Loya Paktia?

“Eight years into the war and the main brigade in Kandahar still doesn’t have a HQ beyond the commander’s cell phone and a six foot table sans maps.” This isn’t 1-205 ANA’s fault. It is ISAF’s fault for failing to fund, equip, or train the ANA before 2007. Remember that Rumsfeld was publicly railing the ANA in the summer of 2006 for its unsustainably large budget; and demanding large planned spending cuts so that the Afghans could pay for it on their own. Rumsfeld was publicly demanding that the ANA’s planned size be reduced to 55,000.

Why do you think the Bde HQs of the ANA can’t be improved?

“If the ANA was even mildly competent it wouldn’t need an influx of basic trainers who can’t speak Afghan languages would it?” Umm, not so. A large long term funding increase for the ANA/ANP was only approved in late November, 2009. That was when the Chosen One decided to commit to a larger and more capable ANSF. The training through put has increased several fold since then. Increasing training through put overnight without diminishing quality requires a large number of additional trainers. Without an ISAF training surge; most of the ANA’s operational officers/NCOs will need to be pulled out of combat and be reassigned to Major General Aminullah Karim’s Afghan National Army Training Command.

The ANA has overnight gone from creating 2400 in new unit structure every 5 weeks to creating 7000 in new unit structure every 5 weeks. Shannon, this is extremely challenging. So far it appears to have been executed effectively.

“Check out the latest 60 Minutes report to see “commandos” in action (although the ODA incompetence is even more disturbing).” Didn’t see that. Though from Bruce’s comments . . . glad I didn’t.

“they could “win” like the IRA: an armistice that sees NATO leave and senior Taliban become government ministers until a coup d’etat- by the Taliban” Do you see an armistice that doesn’t involve the Taliban joining the political process? I don’t. If the Taliban runs in Afghan elections; then isn’t that victory?

The worst case scenario I see is a long term civil war between the ANSF and the Taliban where the Taliban are backed by Pakistan; and the ANSF are backed by ISAF/Russia/India/Iran/China. But even in this worse case scenario; I don’t see how the ANSF loses . . . unless its funding is reduced; which is very unlikely before 2013 at the earliest.

Under stay the course, in two years, the ANA will have well over 200,000 troops and have significantly transformed the regional balance of power.

“Until NATO leaves there is no incentive for the mass of Afghans who are against the Taliban to fight. NATO can do the fighting while the educated and monied classes (the parallel in America between Ivy League grads and trailer park inhabitants is exactly the same) sit back and rake in the cash or escape to the West or Dubai.” The ANA in particular doesn’t seem to have problems attracting Pashtun recruits for now. The ANA is 43% Pashtun and training 7,000 new recruits a month. With the recent increase in Helmand applicants for the ANA; why do you think Pashtuns will not join the ANA in large numbers?

The ANSF is fighting the Taliban now. Nangarhar is proof of it. The reason many ISAF or ANA are not there is because the Governor, NDS and ANP are doing a decent job keeping the Taliban out.

“See Iraq for the model.” Then Afghanistan has a bright future. The IA and IP were quickly stood up and are now among the highest quality in the Arab world. Violent attacks against the IA/IP are down by 90% to 95%. The IA and IP won.

Unfortunately, Iraq isn’t the model; because Iraq with 27 million people has 70 billion in annual revenue.

GIRoA with 33 million people only has $600 million/year in revenue. GIRoA annual steady state spending is over $10,000 million/year. This is Afghansitan’s achilles heals. Afghanistan is more dependent on foreign grants than on actual foreigners.

Sailani February 19, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Julia: I can attest, first-hand, to the fact that McKiernan aggressively pushed his tactical directives on airstrikes as well as his driving guidelines (in fact he had personally been more or less run off the road once by US forces driving too aggressively).

M Shannon February 19, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Anan. I’m not in Nangarhar anymore- like the man said- Go west young man.

ISAF and GOA conduct information operations which means at best spinning the situation into the best light. The objective of ISAF info ops is predominantly it’s own civilian population in which it employs embedded reporters and a happily compliant and ignorant MSM.

I do not believe NATO or GOA facts and figures on anything. Period. I have listened to ridiculous boasts, illogical pronouncements, hopeful body counts and flat out lies for eight years.

A few questions I’d like to see asked of NATO: If things were going well with ANSF then why is the surge necessary? Why spend billions on the ISAF escalation? If support for the GOA is increasing and for the Taliban decreasing why is the surge necessary? Wouldn’t COIN doctrine say that indicates success and not failure requiring drastic action? Where are the Afghan troops in Helmand? If this operation has been planned for months and is so crucial why are there so few ANA?

M Shannon February 23, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Ditto for the new restrictions on night time raids and the tactic of giving the Taliban lots of warning before a major op- first Helmand and soon Kandahar.

Yes it may reduce civilian casualties which is good but it also gives the Taliban time to prepare- IEDs of course but also caches, tunnels and bunkers. After all the warning if ISAF then kills a bunch of civilians (this appears to be inevitable) and forces thousands from their homes which will then be damaged or looted by ANSF public support for GOA and ISAF will decrease which is exactly the opposite of the purpose of the offensive in the first place.

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