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Airstrikes: hitting the wrong target as standard

May 17, 2019

Summary: Many Afghan police reported dead in a failed airstrike in southern Afghanistan.

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Al Jazeera report that as many as 17 Afghan police have been killed, with 14 injured, in an airstrike that went awry in Helmand province near the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.  The international “Resolute Support” mission say that they carried out the attack mission.

An air attack has killed 17 policemen by mistake during a battle with the Taliban just outside the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, officials said.  Attaullah Afghan, the head of the provincial council, said the attack took place on Thursday while Afghan police were fighting the Taliban near the city.  Fourteen policemen were wounded in the attack, he added.  A spokesperson for the provincial governor said the strike was carried out by NATO Resolute Support mission force in the Nahr-e-Seraj area of the Helmand-Kandahar highway.  There was no immediate response to a query to the US military in Kabul. American forces regularly back Afghan troops when asked to.  Helmand’s Governor Mohammad Yasin said the air raid is being investigated. A Taliban statement claimed US forces were behind it.

Airstrikes on a fast evolving battlefield where the enemy is hard to identify, reliable intelligence is limited and civilians and friendly forces pop up in the most inconvenient of locations mean failures are inevitable.  It is a highly demanding, impossible-to get-perfect, process.  The history of the use of airpower in Afghanistan once 2001 is littered with examples of disastrous failures of airpower:  wedding parties, hospitals, funerals, schools, mosques, civilians, friendly forces, have all been wrongly targeted.  But the use of airpower by the US (who I think is the only international military force currently employing ground attack aircraft over Afghanistan) appears to have significantly increased in the last two years.

Not only that, the Afghan airforce is having its strike capability increased (and is also making the same mistakes).  It seems highly likely that the Afghan airforce will, for years to come, be less capable of accurate airstrikes than their international colleagues.  But airpower – such as ground attack aircraft and attack helicopters will always be a symbol of national power and prestige.  India is reportedly providing two ground attack helicopters.    With this sort of capability now available, my sense is that the increased employment of airstrikes is inevitable.  The old adage still applies – if all you have is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail.

Airpower generally economises on military lives but jeopardises the civilian population.  One thing that is sure to turn a friendly civilian into a neutral one or a neutral one into a enemy is if you keep dropping bombs on their children.  The Americans are training much of the Afghan air force (although less so now, as Afghan pilots seem to regularly claim asylum as soon as they get to America).  Perhaps the Afghan airforce might benefit from an emphasis on funding for training – a culture of firepower restraint, surveillance, reconnaissance, target identification, ground to air coordination – instead of receiving exciting (and lethal) new toys.  Perhaps the Afghan National Army and Air Force should be aiming to bake in a culture that emphasis a range of other options and the role of airpower as the absolute last resort.  It is highly counter-productive simply to gift propaganda victories to the Taliban.


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