It seems that we may have won the war in Afghanistan only to lose the peace. This shouldn't surprise any of us. Afghanistan has always been relatively easy to conquer, but it has proven nearly impossible to govern. The Soviets overran the country in just four days but were bogged down there for a decade. Our own campaign in the fall lasted only two months. Even the infamous British expedition to Kabul in 1839, where only one man came back alive, had a relatively easy time conquering the country.
Unfortunately we're not talking about how to conquer Afghanistan. We're talking about preventing the return of al Qaeda and Taliban forces. Some of these fanatics are hiding in the Pashtun-dominated parts of the country, with others watching from neighboring Pakistan. To keep them from regaining a foothold in a country, we have to win a propaganda battle every bit as crucial as the military one. Unfortunately all the good feelings in the world will be for naught if we don't stop dropping bombs all over the country.
Earlier this month one of our planes mistakenly attacked an Afghan wedding party at Kakrak, killing at least 48 civilians. Reports indicate that the pilot believed he was taking ground fire from Afghans who were firing their weapons into the air as part of the celebration. While this is just one incident of many, the problem is that this recent bombing happened in "peacetime" (I use the term with regards to Afghanistan in the loosest possible sense of the word). Civilian casualties are expected during war, but are incredibly hard to defend in the absence of one.
Why are we still relying on airpower in Afghanistan? Partly in case our ground forces come under attack. During Operation Anaconda in March, the Air Force's close-support bombing saved many of our soldiers' lives. However, the al Qaeda and Taliban forces aren't stupid, and it's doubtful that they'll make the mistake of sending major cohesive units into conventional battle with us again. In fact, in the four months since Anaconda, it's become clear that most of our enemies have stayed across the border in Pakistan's tribal areas. So while our bomber force in Afghanistan has been substantially downgraded, it still packs a heavy punch. But one of the hazards of keeping these bombers over Afghanistan is that the odds increase that this lethality will be used on the wrong people, and increase resentment towards our peacekeeping forces.
During the war I was very much in favor of our bombing campaign, despite my desire to see ground troops introduced. However, the decision not to field significant numbers of ground troops (aside from some well-publicized raids) made sense at the time, as we could not have supported them logistically and they could not have been put into place in such a short time. Bombing, in short, was the most expedient solution. However, now that the war is over, we are able to supply a substantial amount of ground troops in Afghanistan. Our mission requirements have also changed. Instead of fighting a country run by the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance, we are charged with keeping the peace where it exists and helping to make it where it does not. These missions are absolutely not suited for airpower.
Last week The New York Times compiled a list of all our bombing errors since October of last year. While the article displays a certain naivete about the confusion and snafus that plague any battlefield (sample quote: "Before you bomb, you should be 100 percent certain of who you are bombing"), it did cause me to wonder if we haven't been leaning on airpower too much in recent years. Our ability to bomb anything that moves, one of our biggest assets in combat, is one of the biggest drawbacks of using bombers for peacekeeping work. For example, there have been quite a few incidents when our soldiers have mistakenly raided villages and gotten into firefights with the wrong people. And that's on the ground. When looking down from 15,000 feet, the view must be even more confusing. Also, the victims of the previous incidents are usually in the single digits, as opposed to the massive double and triple-digit casualties of a bombing screw-up.
The final drawback is the image that we've given by relying on our planes to do our dirty work. Bill Maher may have been tactless when he proclaimed that flying planes into buildings is more courageous than bombing from 15,000 feet, but he was definitely onto something. Last March, Israel launched a massive attack on the main West Bank cities, an attack that was notable for its lack of airpower (I wrote this before an Israeli F-16 obliterated terrorist Salah Shahada and a dozen innocents. This shows that even countries with incredible intelligence services aren't omniscient). In fact, before the fighting in Jenin, the prevailing view on the street was that Israel might be too soft to fight a war of attrition against the Palestinians. That view, confronted with images of Israeli soldiers fighting and dying house-to-house, changed practically overnight. Whatever else one thinks about the Israelis now, no one thinks they're cowards.
Which brings me back to the bombing of Kakrak. More incidents like that will hardly convince the Afghans that a western-style democracy is the best way of governing themselves. The presence of al Qaeda and Taliban forces means we can't just abandon the country and manipulate it from the sidelines like so many other great powers have done in history. We have to find a way to guarantee the security of the Karzai government without alienating an already-suspicious population in the process. Increasingly, airpower is looking like the wrong tool for that job.