Afghan Forces

UNAMA: Afghan Air Force Better Than Ever At Killing Civilians

In 2015, the Afghan Air Force…killed more civilians.

Everyone agrees that more airpower is the answer to the Afghan security question. “Everyone” in this case being level-headed luminaries like Michael O’Hanlon and David Petraeus. Kids: this is why you should never Netflix and op-ed. Because bingeing on Russell Crowe is bad for foreign relations.  

After another exhausting two-man Gladiator re-enactment at the Petraeus homestead, Mike and Dave posit that the solution to the Afghan problem is to…unleash US airpower. That the Americans should “take the gloves off of those who are there.” Why? Because “the development of the Afghan air force will take at least a few more years.”

Which development is a mixed bag for the Afghan people, since the United Nations reported today that 2015 was a shit year to be an Afghan civilian. And that the Afghan Air Force (AAF) did a better than usual job of…killing Afghan civilians.

Reversing declines documented in previous years, civilian casualties from aerial operations conducted by both international military forces and Afghan security forces increased by 83 per cent in 2015, causing 296 civilian casualties (149 deaths and 147 injured). Offensive air-to-ground strikes carried out by Afghan security forces caused nearly half (43 per cent) of all civilian casualties from aerial operations. Civilian casualties from Afghan security forces’ aerial operations tripled in the second half of 2015 compared to the first semester.

Sure, they got off to a slow start, but they picked up the pace in that 2nd half, increasing casualties by 250%, and killing 720% more people than in the first six months of the year.

Between 1 January and 30 June 2015, UNAMA documented 28 civilian casualties (five deaths and 23 injured) from Afghan Air Force operations, compared to 98 civilian casualties (41 deaths and 57 injured) from 1 July to 31 December.

The argument that Petraeus, O’Hanlon and others make about indigenous airpower is that the Afghans don’t have enough. That once the AAF figures out how to use its new Tucanos, Jengis, and Mi-35 gunships, that the tide of the war will turn. Which tide has been ebbing for the better part of the last half decade, based on the insurgency tidal charts that are American press releases.

Except the problem isn’t one of quantity, but of quality. The Afghan tragedy here is twofold: that more Afghan civilians were killed and wounded in 2015 than ever before, and that Afghan forces are indifferent to protecting those civilians on the battlefield. The exponential increase in Afghan civilian casualties caused by the AAF underscores that indifference, and more AAF aircraft is going to mean more dead Afghans.

The conventional wisdom is that this is an Afghan problem. Except that absolves the architects of America’s longest interventiongasm of culpability. Because modern war is done on a timeline, the Afghans were handed security responsibility for their country before they were ready. And the Americans knew that.

Because you’ve got to break a few civilian eggs to make a counter-terror omelette, the UNAMA report will help the US make the case for greater involvement heading into the rest of 2016 and beyond. Which is what the Pentagon wants: the firepower to defeat the Taliban and Daesh here in the graveyard of restraint.

Never mind that back when this was still the “good” war, US forces had more aerial firepower than they could use. Never mind that this had no long-term effect on the Taliban. And never mind that the nascent Afghan Air Force is already on pace to kill a whole lot more innocent people than the Americans ever did.

The Pentagon and voters like bombing campaigns for the same reason: fewer dead Americans. Except they make for terrible strategy in a country that often sees its own forces as more foreign invaders. It’s hard to win hearts and minds when you keep blowing so many of them up.

In a previous version of this post the percentages were lower. Because the author is not so great with the maths.

Also published on Medium.