The deaths of these nine Afghan boys remind us that this is a real war and that we’re actually devoting a lot (most?) of our effort not to population protection but to killing suspected insurgents. U.S. reliance on airpower has increased dramatically, and USAF airstrikes are reportedly up by some 172 percent since General David Petraeus replaced Stanley McChrystal last year. The approach is also consistent with greater U.S. reliance on drone strikes in Pakistan and should be seen as part of an intensifying effort to kill as many insurgents as possible and especially to target key insurgent leaders.
Furthermore, “population protection” itself is not always a purely benign or politically neutral act. Protecting a local population often requires interfering with their daily lives in sometimes onerous and bothersome ways, whether through the construction of massive concrete barriers (as in Baghdad), or “strategic hamlets” (as in Vietnam), or through intrusive search missions in local villages. Even when we are in fact improving the security of the local population, that may not be how the people we are supposedly protecting perceive it. In the Pech Valley, at least, the local population mostly wanted us to get out and leave them alone.
Put all these elements together, and the central conundrum of our position becomes clearer. Heavier reliance on airpower and more aggressive military operations on the ground are bound to lead to more accidental civilian deaths, because military force is a crude weapon, humans are imperfect, and errors are bound to happen no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Yet the more we emphasize that our objective is “hearts and minds” and protecting the population, the more damage the inevitable mistakes do in the eyes of Afghans, the world at large, and to popular support here at home.
Ironically, Section E-6 of FM 3-24 makes this same point quite clearly (my emphasis):
The proper and well-executed use of aerial attack can conserve resources, increase effectiveness, and reduce risk to U.S. forces. Given timely, accurate intelligence, precisely delivered weapons with a demonstrated low failure rate, appropriate yield, and proper fuse can achieve desired effects while mitigating adverse effects. However, inappropriate or indiscriminate use of air strikes can erode popular support and fuel insurgent propaganda. For these reasons, commanders should consider the use of air strikes carefully during COIN operations, neither disregarding them outright nor employing them excessively.”
But in their zeal to find some way to turn the war around (or to at least appear to have done so), have our commanders forgotten their own advice? And given all the internal contradictions in U.S. strategy, doesn’t it suggest that the war simply isn’t winnable (in any meaningful sense), at anything like a reasonable cost?