Sunday, October 28, 2007

# Posted 10:50 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IS PETRAEUS TRIGGER-HAPPY? USA Today recently reported that the number of US airstrikes against Iraqi insurgents has more than quadrupled this year, to 1140 as of late September. Slate military correspondent Fred Kaplan argues that this is an extremely dangerous trend, since it may save American lives in the short run, but will inflict heavy civilian casualties that only heighten Iraqi antagonism toward the United States.

I don't buy it. It is essential, of course, to inflict as few civilian casualties as possible in the process of counterinsurgency operations. To that effect, Kaplan cites the Army's official manual for counterinsurgency operations, whose production was supervised by Gen. Petraeus shortly before his return to Iraq:
An air strike can cause collateral damage that turns people against the host-nation government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory. Even when justified under the law of war, bombings that result in civilian casualties can bring media coverage that works to the insurgents' benefits. … For these reasons, commanders should consider the use of air strikes carefully during [counterinsurgency] operations, neither disregarding them outright nor employing them excessively.
If certain other generals were in charge, I might be seriously concerned that they were ignoring the sound doctrine elaborated by the Army's field manual. But my gut says that Petraeus is too smart to ignore his own good advice.

What really matters, however, is not my gut. It's the evidence. Kaplan writes that:
The research group Iraq Body Count estimates that 417 Iraqi civilians died from January to September of this year as a result of airstrikes. This is only a bit less than the estimated 452 deaths caused by airstrikes in the previous two years combined.
I'm willing to give some weight to the IBC numbers, even though they are a far-left anti-war activist organization, not just a "research group". As OxBlog has shown in the past, IBC won't let the truth get in the way of their anti-war publicity efforts.

But for the moment, let's assume that IBC got it right. Instead of 200+ civilian casualties, this year there will be around 500 inflicted by US airstrikes. According to iCasualties.org, approximately 15,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the beginning of this calendar year. If US airstrikes have accounted for 417 deaths, that would represent slightly less than 3% of the total. From a human perspective, that is still a tragedy. From a strategic perspective, I have a hard time believing that this kind of fluctuation would have a major impact on Iraqi public opinion.

Yet Kaplan suggests that it does. In a companion piece, he reviews some recent public opinion data from Iraq which indicate that hostility to the US is rising. I haven't had time to review those data in detail, so I will simply observe for now that even Kaplan doesn't draw a clear connection between the public opinion data and the increase in air strikes.

Aside from the IBC data, Kaplan points to another indicator that air strikes save American lives at the cost of Iraqi ones:
In the first nine months of 2007, Air Force planes dropped munitions on targets in Iraq more often than in the previous three years combined.

More telling still, the number of airstrikes soared most dramatically at about the same time that U.S. troop fatalities declined.
That is just plain bad analysis. The leading killer of US troops for quite a while has been the improvised explosive device, or IED. Our casualties have been down significantly over the past couple of months because so many fewer troops are being killed by IEDs. This month, 15 American troops have been killed by IEDs. In May, when US casualties were at their peak, we lost almost 90 soldiers and marines to IEDs.

It should be pretty clear that air strikes can't protect our troops from IEDs. As Kaplan himself observes, air strikes get called in when troops are facing a tough objective, for example a fortified house with insurgents inside. In contrast, IEDs hit our patrols and convoys at the beginning of battle, often taking our forces by surprise.

So, if using more air strikes can't explain our recent success on the battlefield, what can? On that point, I'll stick with the conventional wisdom. First and foremost, Coalition forces have forged a strategic alliance with numerous Sunni tribes, bringing them into the fight against Al Qaeda and giving us the intelligence necessary to be more effective in our own operations. In other words, progress on the political front has led to progress on the military front.

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(5) opinions -- Add your opinion

he doesnt buy it.
Among other things, a sortie is any time an aircraft takes off on a mission. Could be a training flight, a flight to check the fix on the doohickey.
If you read some of the reports, an airstrike can be a "show of force", which means doing a low, fast flyover, sometimes dispensing flares for dramatic effect. Not my idea of a show of force, but the controllers calling for them report them as successful. I suppose the ones which aren't successful do something more severe on the return leg.
I submit that using jets to scare the enemy--and only scare--is both unprecedented in warfare and unnoted by the proponents of the nastiness of the US' indiscriminate use of airpower.
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