It’s been pretty amazing watching the transformation of airpower in Afghanistan over the last 9 years. Initially, airpower was entirely about the Coalition and almost entirely about killing people. On the first night of the war in Afghanistan, for example, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described attacks by B-2 stealth bombers from the continental United States, B-1 and B-52 bombers from Diego Garcia, 25 strike aircraft from the USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise, and cruise missiles launched from US surface ships, a US submarine and a British submarine.
By 2009, the Coalition’s ability to plan and execute precision strikes – with minimal loss of civilian life – had never been better. But it wasn’t good enough. For example, a UNAMA report that 595 civilians were killed by insurgents, compared to only 200 by Coalition air strikes in the first half of 2009 was interesting but irrelevant. Because statistics don’t matter to the families of the 200 killed by air strikes. Afghans and the International Community alike were asking, “I don’t get it – how come you guys are losing?”
The answer? We had the wrong focus. Because, as Brig Gen Kwast, commander of the Air Expeditionary Wing at Bagram Air Base says,
Counterinsurgency is not about killing the enemy. It’s about protecting the people.
So, on 2 July 2009, Coalition airpower changed dramatically. As part of a far-reaching tactical directive, GEN McChrystal, the Commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, directed that air strikes could only occur under “very limited and prescribed” conditions, noting that “we must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civlian casualties…and thus alienating the people.” Or as Dave “Smoke” Grasso puts it,
Every time I drop a bomb and kill one innocent Afghan I set the war back – even if I killed 100 Taliban.
In the ANA Air Corps though, arpower changed even more dramatically. In 2005, there was no such thing as Afghan airpower. Today, the Air Corps flies Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters, and AN-32 and C-27 cargo aircraft, focusing on Presidential and other types of airlift, and battlefield mobility, to include air assault, medical evacuation and casualty evacuation. NTM-A/CSTC-A’s Combined Air Power Transition Force, or CAPTF, supports the Air Corps by helping build aircraft capacity, Airmen, and infrastructure. CAPTF advisers also help the Afghans perform operations, in direct support of the counterinsurgency effort.
But some things about airpower in Afghanistan never change: On the first night of the war – only 45 minutes after the first bombs hit their targets – the US Air Force dropped 34,400 packages of food and medicine from two C-17 transport aircraft. Today, we sometimes use a precision airdrop system, but we’re still dropping supplies in Afghanistan.
Bottom line: Airmen adapt.
* Photo by SSgt Larry E. Reid, Jr., USAF, from Defense Imagery
** Photo by SSgt Michael B. Keller, USAF, from Defense Imagery.