Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The sky's the limit

At the start of this week the Sunday Times reported on the increasing use of US air power in Iraq.
AMERICAN forces are dramatically stepping up air attacks on insurgents in Iraq as they prepare to start the withdrawal of ground troops in the spring. The number of airstrikes in 2005, running at a monthly average of 25 until August, surged to 120 in November and an expected 150 in December, according to official military figures. The tempo looks set to increase this year as the Americans pull back from urban combat, leaving street fighting increasingly to Iraqi forces supported by US air power.
This is being sold, oddly enough, as an attempt to reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties. Small laser or satellite-guided bombs are used and these only kill bad guys or something, according to the US military. But as Wing Commander Andrew Brookes of the International Insititute for Strategic Studies told the Times "Even a 400lb bomb has a wide area of blast and you are quite likely to kill some civilians. Kill a wife, children, mother or uncle and people become so angry the terrorist cycle starts all over again.” It is generally recognised that airstrikes are an extemely ineffective weapon against an insurgency. Generally recognised by everyone except the US miltary and the neo-conservatives anyway.

Today, this happened:
Several members of the same family, including women and children, have been killed in a US air strike that destroyed their home in northern Iraq... So far, the bodies of a nine-year-old boy, an 11-year-old girl, three women and three men have been found in the rubble, police said.
This was a precision strike.

Reaction from Sunni politicians:
A local official of the biggest Sunni Arab political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, called for demonstrations. "This is a historic crime and another catastrophe for the people of Baiji," he told Reuters. Hussein al-Falluji, a lawyer and a national leader of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Accordance Front, said: "Once again the occupiers have shown their barbarism. They never learn from their mistakes... People's resentment is increasing."
It's hardly a surprising reaction. I find myself wondering how a neo-conservative would feel if this happened to their family. Would they be comforted to know that it was really only a very small bomb which killed their children and that it wasn't aimed at them anyway but at three men suspected of being dangerous who were also in the building? How would you feel if it happened to you? Unfortunate but unavoidable collateral damage? Or a barbaric act of violence which must be avenged?

Of course many people will say that it is the insurgents who are to blame for this. They deliberately take refuge in urban areas and they are the ones who turn innocent children into targets. There's no denying that they do this; it's an insurgency and that's how insurgents operate. Does that remove the moral responsibility for these deaths from the person who dropped the bomb or the one who gave the order? If you think yes, would you say that is very different from the terrorist argument that people on a tube train in London are legitimate targets because of the actions of their government? Is that Blair's fault because he refuses to come out and face the terrorists man on man?

It's true that terrorists deliberately try to kill innocent people and the US military tries not to but what difference does that make to the grieving relatives? How much difference would that distinction honestly make to you if someone dropped a bomb on your house?

The BBC hits the nail on the head as to why these airstrikes are actually becoming more frequent.
US forces frequently use air strikes in their battle against Iraqi insurgents, in an effort to minimise US casualties.
In the US, political support for the Iraq war is slipping badly (with blips) and US casualties are one of the main causes. The US government knows that more of the same is not politically sustainable at home and efforts are being made to reduce the risk to US soldiers on the ground. Perfectly sensible, you might think but not if the result is an increase in resentment towards US forces in Iraq. This approach might reduce US casualties but it certainly won't lead to "victory".

That's the nub of it. Fighting an insurgency properly means having well trained counter-insurgency forces on the ground and "in harms way". Those troops will face enormous risks but must exercise extreme caution in their application of military force in the face of those risks. It's incredibly dangerous and if you're not expecting a considerable number of casualties from a counter-insurgency operation then you've no business ordering troops to do anything at all. That's slightly moot in the case of the neo-cons since they didn't seem to realise that there'd even be an insurgency in Iraq, never mind that it'd last almost three years and counting and cost the lives of more than 2,000 American soldiers.

Now airstrikes are being used more and more frequently and they, like so many aspects of the US military strategy in Iraq, are going to be counter-productive. The coalition is also going to increasingly rely on the Iraqi security forces although how they're going to determine the loyalties of these forces is something of a mystery. As I said before, how many Iraqi battalions or police patrols would a Fox News reporter be happy to be embedded with?

All of this talk of counter-insurgency strategies is going to be a moot point if the new Iraqi government asks the coalition to withdraw their forces this year as many people are predicting. (Moot unless you're dead, a grieving relative, or a soldier with a bloody stump where your leg should be, that is.) And in the end, unless something totally extraordinary happens, all this will have achieved will be to let Iran friendly Islamists can gain control of much of Iraq. What a horrendous mess.

Btw, the Times article refers to another article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker. It's definitely worth reading on it's own.

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