When our forces first went into Afghanistan, it was all about the kinetics. A couple of years ago, the mission moved to “hearts and minds”, firepower being eschewed in favor of making nice. Then came the “Afghan surge”, which never included as many forces as the forward commanders requested, but definitely resulted in increased presence and concomitant kinetics in places the NATO coalition had never been, or where they had been too thin on the ground to effect either a tactical or strategic difference.
Now it seems, we’re back to playing nice again:
INSIDE STRIKE FIGHTER VENGEANCE 13, over Kandahar Province, Afghanistan — Cmdr. Layne McDowell glanced over his left shoulder, through the canopy of a Navy F/A-18, to an Afghan canyon 9,000 feet below. An American infantry company was down there.
The soldiers had been inserted by helicopter. Now a ground controller wanted the three strike fighters circling overhead to send a sign — both to the grunts and to any Taliban fighters shadowing them as they walked.
Commander McDowell banked and aligned his jet’s nose with the canyon’s northeastern end. Then he followed his wingmen’s lead. He dived, pulled level at 5,000 feet and accelerated down the canyon’s axis at 620 miles per hour, broadcasting his proximity with an extended engine roar.
In the lexicon of close air support, his maneuver was a “show of presence” — a mid-altitude, nonlethal display intended to reassure ground troops and signal to the Taliban that the soldiers were not alone. It reflected a sharp shift in the application of American air power, de-emphasizing overpowering violence in favor of sorties that often end without munitions being dropped.
The use of air power has changed markedly during the long Afghan conflict, reflecting the political costs and sensitivities of civilian casualties caused by errant or indiscriminate strikes and the increasing use of aerial drones, which can watch over potential targets for extended periods with no risk to pilots or more expensive aircraft.
Fighter jets with pilots, however, remain an essential component of the war, in part because little else in the allied arsenal is considered as versatile or imposing, and because of improvements in the aircraft’s sensors.
Perhaps it has something to do with timing, perhaps this go-around the softly-softly approach will work better.
(McDowell) was above a home in which at least two Taliban fighters had taken shelter after firing on an American patrol. But he did not know who else might be inside. Neither he nor the soldiers requested clearance for an airstrike.
“What if we hit that house and two guys inside had guns and we get eight kids, too?” he said.
High over the Arghandab River, he banked over the home that he and the rules had spared.
Referring to the targeting display in the cockpit, he pointed out its proximity to other homes, and described the limits of what he knew about so-called “patterns of life” — the rhythm of the human activity at the compound where Taliban fighters hid.
“I didn’t think about these things at all in Kosovo,” he said.
The reach of a nuclear carrier, augmented with aerial tankers, made it possible for strike aircraft to penetrate 800 miles from the ship. But what was the point of projecting power if it was not projected responsibly? The changes, he said, have been good.
“I would say that in my younger days I would have been frustrated, because we have ordnance and we know where the enemy is, and I would have wanted permission to strike that building,” he said. “Did I feel frustrated this time? Not in the slightest. It is a different mission. It calls for a different mentality.”
We very probably will not be able to kill our way to victory, or anything that smells like it in Afghanistan. The Russians hit hard for 10 years, and had little to show for it when they fell back. But it would keep us busy until a better idea came along.
My hat’s off to CDR McDowell for his forbearance.
He’s a better man than me.