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Air strikes: be careful what you wish for

June 14, 2012

By Tim Foxley


Summary – following another NATO airstrike in which innocent Afghan civilians appear to have been killed, the Afghan government seems to be drawing closer to a time where it will bear responsibility for such operations in the future.  But will the ANSF be able to perform any better?


On Wednesday 6th June, ISAF aircraft dropped bombs on a house in the village of Baraki Barak in Logar province, seeking to kill Taliban commanders believed to be in the building.

“Tribal elders and officials in Logar province earlier told the BBC that Taliban commanders had gathered at the house in a remote village in the district of Baraki Barak.  Isaf, Nato’s operation in Afghanistan, said that Afghan and Nato troops came under fire after surrounding the house and warning the Taliban to surrender.  Nato forces then called in the air strike.  Reports say guests had gathered at the house ahead of a wedding. At least eight Taliban commanders were also killed nearby.”

There was much initial confusion as to what had happened very characteristic of such incidents.  The “Its Always Sunny in Kabul” blog documented some of this claim and counterclaim.

The consensus appears to be that as many as 18 innocent civilians had been killed.  The ISAF commander, General John Allen, formally apologised for the attack.   The Afghan government responded quickly and very critically:

“presidential spokesman Faizi called the airstrike a “one-sided” decision that had not been co-ordinated with the Afghans. He said investigators told the president that Afghan forces had surrounded the house in question, but the U.S. troops decided not to wait for them to try to flush out the militants and called in aircraft instead.  Karzai and his advisers decided that if such incidents happened in the future they would consider them a breach of the special operations pact, the spokesman said. He said Kabul felt that the United States was not holding to the promises it made in that accord, as well as a larger strategic partnership agreement signed last month.  “The expectation of the Afghan government and the Afghan people was that a new page would open between Afghanistan and the United States,” the spokesman said. If another unapproved airstrike occurs, he said, the Afghan government will have to consider that the U.S. troops part of an “occupation.” Karzai had at times said the foreign troops risked becoming “occupiers” prior to the signing of the April and May agreements.  The Logar strike was the fifth incident of civilian casualties from U.S. unilateral actions since the long term partnership was signed, Faizi said.”

Now, according to President Karzai, the US has promised not to drop bombs on residential areas anymore:

 “Speaking after a meeting with US ambassador Ryan Crocker and Nato commander General John Allen, Karzai said he had been given a “commitment” that American forces would cease bombing such targets.”

As ISAF press ahead with plans to transition out of Afghanistan, the dynamic between the Afghan government and ISAF is shifting – Karzai taking a tougher line, ISAF more passive.

Issues such as:

  • the international community’s need for private security companies to secure supply lines and protect key personnel;
  • the need for Pakistani supply lines;
  • the need for ISAF to be able to protect itself with airpower;
  • the need for ISAF to be able to launch night raids and targeted killings

no longer seem to be the strategic “showstoppers” for ISAF and the international community effort in Afghanistan.   (I suspect that even the quality of future elections will not be pressed with such concern as it was in 2009).  Two or three years ago, I suspect if Karzai had tried to limit ISAF airstrikes he would have provoked a massive and terminally damaging stand-off with the international community.

No magic bullet…

But Karzai and his security forces need to be careful what they wish for.  Taking over the responsibility for military operations generally and night raids and airstrikes in particular suggest that it is only a matter of time before Karzai will be receiving calls from irate villagers, blaming him for the misplaced bombs and bullets of the ANSF.  Perhaps small wonder why ISAF seems to be so passive about the issue.

There are a couple of ways this can go – either the ANSF will attempt to carry on where ISAF left off and doing what ISAF is training them to do (with the inherent risks of making costly mistakes) or they will back away from anything that looks too likely to cause collateral damage.   Either direction can be of benefit to an active insurgency.  I sense that ISAF command and command capabilities will not be even close to being matched by the ANSF.  ANSF will not have the same level of intelligence gathering, response and decision making times, military capabilities, restraint and technology that ISAF has.  This makes the risk of collateral damage more likely.  If ISAF can be accused of a lack of transparency, the Afghan government is much worse.  Investigating strikes, discovering the real causes and allocating compensation will be similarly weak.  It will be fascinating to see how the Afghan government media manages to deal with the issues and I wonder at the prospect of an ethnic Tajik air force commander ordering bombs onto a Pushtun village.  Let’s watch how President Karzai emotionally intervenes in the actions of his armed forces and by direct phone call to the nearest village elder he can find.

I mentioned restraint.  Two anecdotal examples from Kabul (supposedly the repository of the best trained Afghan security response units in the country) last year:

  • the Kabul Chief of Police pausing from the peripheral and clearly boring duties of coordination, command and control duties during the insurgent attack on the British Council in August 2011 to throw grenades over the wall (more likely a wall)
  • In September 2011, The Minister of the Interior no less, shunning his expensive Western-constructed command and control centre to interfere in the tactical deployments of his crisis response unit as they were attempting to fight their way up a building occupied by well armed and dug in insurgents

With his eye on his legacy and faced with disquiet and uncertainty in the country, Karzai has to issue tough words.  He is also right, in some way, to seek additional responsibility for the Afghan government.  But he comes dangerously close to threatening violence against international forces: “If another unapproved airstrike occurs, he said, the Afghan government will have to consider that the U.S. troops part of an “occupation.”  This is unhelpful – and there will remain a likelihood that ISAF forces will cause more collateral damage between now and 2014 (and, of course, even beyond then).  Karzai should be careful what he appears to be wishing for, how he handles this issue  and what ultimately he is bringing on.  It may not seem like it to him, but ISAF has a lot of skill and capabilities that his armed forces do not yet have.  Karzai and the ANSF would do well to watch and learn rather than provoke and prematurely close down.  He is currently pushing at a weary ISAF open door – “fine, if you don’t like what we’re doing, do it yourself”…

Government responsibility for “Green on Green” is not far away.  This is as it should be, but the consequences of a hasty transition to an ill-prepared ANSF could be very damaging to both international and Afghan efforts in Afghanistan.  And to civilians who get in the way.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. David Walker permalink
    June 15, 2012 5:41 am

    Given that the Afghan air force consists of a few trainers and antique Soviet helicopters, I doubt there will be much of a problem with errant aviation bombs.

    • June 15, 2012 9:20 am

      David, hi and thanks. You’re right up to a point, of course, but never under-estimate the power of antique Soviet helicopters! My most interesting picture from my time in Afghanistan last year was a patch of blue sky where I had spectacularly failed to capture a shot of an Afghan attack helicopter (not sure now if it was Mi-24/35 or an Mi-17) as it did a strafing run against a building held by insurgents in September. This was in the middle of Kabul, just a few hundred metres away from ISAF HQ and US Embassy.
      I was probably thinking more of special forces raids going wrong initially, but artillery and airstrikes being misplaced will grow in risk as the Afghans pick up the security slack (perhaps finding it trickier than they thought as the ISAF mentoring and resources fade away) and want to test their muscles…



  2. El Snarkistani permalink
    June 15, 2012 1:50 pm

    Re: David’s comment — the September strafing runs where the Mi-24/35 variant. And, given that the Afghan government is literally years away from cogent airpower capabilities due to the fact that the USAF completely screwed up the procurement for the AAF, this isn’t going to be an Afghan-only issue for quite some time.

    However, you’re raising the valid point that, pushing so far/so fast to build up the ANSF, the real processes that inform a military’s efforts (logistics, C & C, CIVCAS mitigation) are not going to be nearly as mature as they’ll need to be in order to support full-on COIN activities in the future.

  3. June 15, 2012 6:34 pm

    El, thanks. We’ll see how this one goes…

  4. David Walker permalink
    June 17, 2012 12:49 am

    Yes, I have no doubt the ANSF can use their helicopters to blow stuff up in Kabul. You can even use the trainers if you are desperate, it was done in the South African Bush wars and likely others I’ve not heard about. I was really thinking of more far flung areas, the rural provinces of the South and East where the war will really be won or lost. I wouldn’t disagree that the ANSF are likely to cause civilian deaths with their attacks, but I don’t think air attacks are likely to be something they can do.

  5. June 17, 2012 9:06 am

    David, hi. You make a good point about power projection over the capital versus the far-flung districts. I think you’re right about the Air Force – although Karzai is making bold and almost certainly over-confident statements about ANSF and its capabilities in 2013. So we can’t rule out a mis-guided political directive getting in the way of real readiness. I guess I’m not sure which part or parts (Air Force, SF Teams, CT, NDS, regular army, police…) might go wrong first, but go wrong they will (air strike, artillery strike, SF/CT/Narco raid, army or police contact, prisoner handling, accounting to the public in the glare of the media…). Even pre-2014 I think we are going to see significant tactical errors with strategic/media/”hearts and minds” impact on the part of Karzai, his government and his security ministries. It is relatively easy (and probably very helpful, politically) to carp out the operations of foreign forces. How they handle their own “Green on Green” moments will be a real test for them. Thanks for getting back to me.



  6. David Walker permalink
    June 24, 2012 4:42 am

    Tbh, if what half I have heard is true, Karzai and gang lost the war for hears and minds 6 years ago, mostly due to corruption, incompetent government and outright thieving. I doubt whatever air or artillery strikes they can scrape together will do much more than has already been done in that department. Which I guess is my real point. Whatever harm the pipsqueak Afghan airforce does to Afghans or Karzai’s reputation, his corrupt cronies and soldiers seem like a far bigger deal.

    But I guess none of that really contradicts a thing you are saying, it just says it isn’t the biggest problem on the table. Little problems can get blog posts too. 😛

  7. June 24, 2012 8:33 am

    David, agreed, and this of course means I should ideally be writing a blog post entitled: “Governance: be careful what you wish for”. I’ll get my people on it 🙂

    My (possibly) final shots on this issue would be to note that the real damage done by a misplaced Afghan Air Force bomb will be a) the media “feeding frenzy” out of proportion to the casualties and destruction (this will be a new angle for them to get stuck into) and b) the demonstration of the failure of governance as they fail to investigate, acknowledge mistakes, release info or handle it in any way other than to deny and deflect. They will not be able to deal with it effectively.




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