NATO Forces

General Campbell’s About Face on Airstrikes

General Campbell used to like things like Afghan howitzers and mortars. Now that it’s 2016 and he’s long gone, the US has picked up the pace of airstrikes supporting Afghan forces. To the tune of over 200%. Let’s figure out why, shall we?

It’s been over a year of Afghan forces doing it for themselves, with less than amazing results. The Taliban (briefly) took the northern city of Kunduz, civilian casualties are on the rise thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Afghan Air Force, and the Taliban control more districts in Afghanistan than at any time since 2001.

And it looks like America is about to elect its first Orange-in-Chief. Which has little or nothing to do with Afghanistan. Just wanted to make a point about this being a bad year. And that Donald Trump is orange.

But in an election year the Americans are trying to make the case that the intervention that never ends is in the capable hands of the Afghan defense forces. And that said defense forces are capable of taking over from the Americans. Provided the US goes full Joe Cocker and gives the Afghans a little help from their friends in the United States Air Force.

Even though the Afghans have an air force of their own. And tt’s been a banner year for the Afghan Air Force (AAF): they received the first of their new A-29 Tucano fighter aircraft, they fielded more armed Mi-17 helicopters, they received four Mi-35 helicopters from the Indians, and the Americans provided the first of several MD-530 gunships to counter the insurgency that will not die.

All of which the AAF put to good use, making short work of the previous record for civilian casualties, eager to show their American counterparts that they, too, can shoot defenseless Afghans in their homes.

Despite an uncanny ability to shoot people that can’t shoot back, though, the AAF still has a long way to go toward becoming a mature fighting force. General John “I Was A Lot More Positive Until I Retired” Campbell, who was in charge of all US and NATO forces in Afghanistan until earlier this year, speculates that the AAF won’t be mature as a group until sometime in 2020. Which means the Afghans aren’t ready to provide all the close air support (CAS) that Afghan ground forces need.

And the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) do like to call in the air support. It’s one of the things Afghan senior leadership complains about whenever they talk about how the war is going, and that’s the lack of enough air support to go around. Which, in a country the size of Texas, is true. To a point.

Where the AAF struggles to keep up is in supporting calls for support from a hodgepodge of checkpoints and local outposts put up by local commanders. In its now semi-annual report to Congress on the progress of the war, the Department of Defense (DoD) makes it clear that the checkpoint strategy isn’t working.

It spreads Afghan forces out too much, making an already difficult logistics task almost impossible. And if you can’t resupply a checkpoint, chances are pretty good that you don’t have the airpower to protect it, either.

2015: Not The ANDSF’s Best Year

The fixed defense/checkpoint strategy had been one of the contributing factors to a greater-than-usual casualty rate in 2015 for the ANDSF. And it’s those casualties that contributed to continuing struggles with double-digit attrition numbers for Afghan forces.

Even though in 2015, the single biggest cause of attrition for the ANDSF wasn’t killed or wounded troops, but soldiers being dropped from rolls (DFR).

For accountability reasons a soldier is put on a DFR status once they’ve been absent without leave (AWOL) for more than 30 days. Which means the biggest manpower problem faced by the ANDSF isn’t casualties, it’s people walking off the job. And since if you don’t report them gone you still get their pay, a lot of “ghost” soldiers and cops are still on Afghan security forces payrolls.

Whether the Afghans can fight isn’t the point of contention. They’ve demonstrated that they’re quite capable of shooting people dead. Too often those dead people are innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, but the ANDSF have shown that they can take on the enemy on the battlefield. What’s less certain is their ability to support themselves on a long-term basis.

Taliban: Can’t Hold Ground, Either

But despite the gains made by the Taliban over the last year and the reports of Taliban controlling much of the country, the truth is a little more nuanced. And not in a way that would make Ollie North beam with pride. As in genuine nuance, since even though the Taliban continue to threaten Afghan security in places like Helmand, what they control has little impact on the country at large.

It’s something Afghan rulers have learned to their sorrow over the years, that trying to control the graveyard of centralized governance from Kabul is almost as impossible as making Kanye West likeable to people who aren’t married to Kanye West. And no matter how many times the Taliban would like to declare any ground they’ve taken as being part of a caliphate, the reality is that they can’t control the population any better than the government can.

Because if the Taliban today have anything in common with the Taliban prior to 2001, it’s that they’re not well funded, at least by government standards.

So the Taliban and Kabul continue to battle back and forth over pieces of land with no real strategic impact. That is if one can get past the visual of yet another district in Helmand falling to the Taliban after so many years of foreign forces and money being pumped into the place to turn it into a bastion of peace and freedom. Or at least a place that didn’t produce quite so much opium.

In a presidential election year, keen to give Obummer a send-off worthy of his legacy and the votes of the American people, the DoD is trying to turn the tide in favor of the Afghan government they only way they know how. Or, at least the only way they know how that won’t mean too many dead Americans coming back in flag-draped caskets.

The answer? More airpower.

What Was That About Howitzers?

General Campbell used to be a big fan of the artillery. Of the Afghans being able to blow things up with their D-30 howitzers. A year ago, in testifying before Congress, Campbell made it clear that he was working with the Afghans to use assets other than American death from above. That he was trying to get Afghan forces to do it for themselves, using things they’d been trained to use by the Americans. Things like howitzers and mortars.

“So when I get a request that says, ‘Hey, I need close air support,’ the first thing I ask them is, ‘Do you have a Quick Reaction Force out there? Have you fired your mortars? Have you fired your artillery? Have you taken your Mi-17 (Russian helicopters) that have forward-firing machine guns on them? You have a few Mi-35s. Have you used them?'”

A year later, on his way out the door, Campbell’s been rethinking this air force plan. And he doesn’t talk about the howitzers anymore.

Close-air support is one that everybody talks about. We knew starting in 2015, they had five Mi-35 [attack helicopters] that had very few hours left, so they weren’t getting a whole bunch out of that, and that was it. That was their close-air support platform.

Sidebar: Can we talk about those Mi-35s and the Mi-17s that show up a little later for a minute? Because the Americans have been training Afghan forces for years on how to use the Mi-17 as an air support platform. And if he knew the Mi-35s were such a complete mess, then when did he testify before Congress in 2015 that they were part of a viable package as an alternative to American air support?

When we went to Resolute Support, our mission changed … so they had to pick up a lot of this on their own, and we’re building that capability, but it takes two or three years to build a pilot, a couple years to build maintainers.

We introduced MD-530s, which is basically a Little Bird, and it has .50-cal machine guns. Though we’ve only got about 14 in-country today, we’ll continue to grow that number. We took their Mi-17 [helicopters], which were not designed to be close-air support platforms, but they put forward-firing machine-guns on some, they armed some with rockets, so that helped close the gap a little bit. But we’re nowhere close to meeting their requirements.

And he doesn’t talk about the howitzers because he realizes that Afghan forces are going to lose more ground in the face of a determined enemy if they don’t up their force multiplier game. Something like US airpower. And so, to kick off the new year, the Americans went full on free the shit out of you and started dropping more bombs on the Afghan countryside. And they increased the year-to-year releases by over 200%.

Bombs Over Baghlan

The New York Times attributed this to the White House authorizing attacks against the Islamic State. Which is part of the equation, except that even before Obama unleashed hell against the IS, Campbell and country were authorized to drop all the high explosives they wanted to for counter-terror reasons. Something I wrote about nearly a year ago when the NYT once again got all Code Pink-y about American airstrikes.

And since at least November of 2014 US forces have been authorized to provide euphemistic “combat enabler support” to Afghan forces. This was part of the Bilateral Security Agreement, specifically Article 2.4, that allows for a whole lot of leeway when it comes to going after “alQaida and its affiliates.” Even before US targeting personnel get anywhere near a Daesh target, that whole “al Qaida and its affiliates” portion means that US air forces, to include the dronerific kids in the trailers at Tonopah, can pretty much lay all the high explosive hate that tickles their fancy.

What the Times article does point out is the increase in those airstrikes. Since 2011 the US Air Force has been publishing airstrike data for the war in Afghanistan. They’ve started doing so for Operation Inherent Resolve, as well, and those numbers are higher. By an order of magnitude. And over time the number of weapons released on the Afghan countryside have been reduced. Most years, between December and January, those numbers drop even further.

Except for this year.

In January, US air forces dropped more than twice as much ordnance on Afghanistan than in January 2015. During the previous two years, US forces cut the numbers of January releases in half. In 2016, January weapons releases over Afghanistan went up 218%. Which, in a miraculous coincidence, was about the time that the White House OK’d targeting ISIS directly.

The numbers get even more stark when comparing average weapons releases per month for the last five years. From 2012 through 2015, US force dropped fewer bombs per month on average every year. For the first two months of 2016, they’re averaging a 59% increase in weapons releases over the previous years.

Thanks to the way the Americans release airstrike data, there’s no way to differentiate how many of these were weapons released from manned aircraft, and how many of them were dropped by remotely piloted vehicles, AKA drones, AKA harbingers of Skynet.

It’s also impossible to determine which airstrikes were conducted as part of the NATO Resolute Support mission, and how many were done to support Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the US mission focused on counter-terrorism. “counterterrorism operations against the remnants of Al-Qaeda to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used to stage attacks against our homeland.”

And sometimes those strikes did some good, like helping restore electricity to Kabul, which is a thing that was happening, according to the Baghlan provincial deputy police chief. And was promptly disavowed by the US military. Because that attack was directed against the Taliban, didn’t involve US or Afghan troops in dire straits, and they weren’t shooting at the AQ or any AQ affiliates.

It’s 2016 – Maybe We Can Bomb Our Way Out

But we do know that the Americans have picked up the pace on the airstrikes. That even without attacking the Taliban that someone in the graveyard of effective aerial fires that someone’s having a bad day on the regular thanks to the US Air Force. The question is, why now?

Because it’s an election year and the threat of losing a place like Helmand as part of what the outgoing president once called the “good war” isn’t something the Democrats want on their resume. Because the rising threat of the Islamic State in Afghanistan means that the Americans have a real chance of beating Daesh back in a war where they need a win. And because airplanes make for better optics than howitzers and mortars.

Even though airpower sucks at holding ground, it does do a dandy job of helping friendly forces clear the place out of the not-so-friendly. And while the AAF is a burgeoning fighting force, they’re not on the same level as US aerial platforms. They’ll be at least as good one day, even with less fancy equipment, but that day isn’t happening in 2016.

That gives the Afghans time to adjust and drive the enemy out of places like Helmand. Which they’ll be better able to do if they follow US advice and move away from the checkpoints. And that’s a move that Afghan leadership has announced will start happening. If that change can be sustained and the Afghan army can shift from a defensive to an offensive mindset, a few more bombs dropped by American warplanes can do some real good.

The term is air support, not air “fight the war for you.” Fighters and bombers can only help you clear the ground. To hold it takes people and equipment on said ground. And that doesn’t happen if you’re hunkered down in a checkpoint, waiting for the fight to come to you.

Campbell’s changing talking points are explainable: he knows he can’t make the kinds of operational changes he believes need to be made for the Afghans to be successful in 2016. But his successor may be able to pull that off. Campbell’s leaving after having served well, and his recommendations are going to hold weight.

Since Campbell asked for a lot more on his way out the door than just airstrikes, when they ask General Nicholson what he thinks, he’s got the freedom to walk it back just enough to seem like a reasonable battlefield commander.

Expect those airstrike numbers to keep going up this year. Even though it was a mild winter, we’re not yet into the 2016 fighting season. And once the poppy crop’s in, then it’s game on once again. And the Afghan Army that’s facing the insurgency this year is the same one that had its ass handed to it last year.

Afghan forces can’t afford for 2016 to be a repeat of 2015. The only thing that’s changed is American willingness to put more planes in the air. And until American elections are over, that’s the only thing the US seems willing to do.

Also published on Medium.