As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, June 22, 2009

Less Airstrikes In Afghanistan?

There's been a dichotomy during Barack Obama's tenure between the assumed rise of the counter-insurgents in Afghanistan, and their concomitant policy of winning the hearts and minds of the local population, and the rise of punishing airstrikes near local populations, which enrage the government as well as the people, turning villagers into martyrs and relatives into extremists. Stanley McChrystal, the newest commander of US forces in Afghanistan, claims that he will reduce these airstrikes going forward, which may be a little late.

The new American commander in Afghanistan said he would sharply restrict the use of airstrikes here, in an effort to reduce the civilian deaths that he said were undermining the American-led mission.

In interviews over the past few days, the commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, said the use of airstrikes during firefights would in most cases be allowed only to prevent American and other coalition troops from being overrun.

Even in the cases of active firefights with Taliban forces, he said, airstrikes will be limited if the combat is taking place in populated areas — the very circumstances in which most Afghan civilian deaths have occurred. The restrictions will be especially tight in attacking houses and compounds where insurgents are believed to have taken cover.

“Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly,” General McChrystal told a group of his senior officers during a video conference last week. “We can lose this fight.”

I will have to believe this when I see it. The working theory about escalation used by the President and his staff was that more troops would be able to cover the country better so we wouldn't have to rely on airstrikes to paper over the lack of manpower. But 21,000 additional troops actually cannot cover a country the size of Texas in any meaningful way. What's positive here is McChrystal's rhetoric, mindful that continued airstrikes gone awry do real damage to winning over the local population.

Still, I think we need to articulate the mission better. Denying the Taliban safe havens, when those havens aren't really in Afghanistan, doesn't seem to be a reasonable goal. And nation-building a country that has had little in the way of a central government throughout its history doesn't make much sense either. If this is true, I'm very pleased for the safety of the Afghan people. But I still don't totally know what we're supposed to be doing there that could not otherwise be accomplished through law enforcement, intelligence and containment.

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