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Commentary

Using Air Power Kills Insurgents, But Can Also Create New Ones


     
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Operation Iraqi Freedom has rung in the new year with a bang—literally. On Jan. 10, U.S. warplanes dropped 40,000 pounds of bombs on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, one of the largest air strikes of the Iraq war. This attack reflects the increased use of air power as a component of Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy (Gen. Petraeus is the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq and the primary author of FM 3-24, the Army’s counterinsurgency manual). In 2007, the U.S. conducted more than 1,100 air strikes, a more than fivefold increase over the previous year.

The U.S. military’s fascination with bombing is rooted in our competitive advantage in advanced technology.

The 1991 Gulf War saw the first widespread use of precision-guided munitions to destroy high-value targets (often deeply buried and hardened). Now ubiquitous in everyone’s cars, the global positioning system was mated to dumb bombs to make them “smart” in Afghanistan, resulting in the venerable B-52 bomber (which has been in service in the U.S. Air Force since 1955) flying close air support missions at tens of thousands of feet altitude (usually directed by soldiers on the ground or the pre-set target coordinates). In Iraq, as guidance technology makes bombs more accurate, they are getting smaller—instead of 1,000-pound or 2,000-pound bombs, 500-pound (or even smaller) bombs can be used to destroy targets with less likelihood of collateral damage. According to Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Mueller, director of the Combined Air Operations Center in Iraq, the benefit of being able to use smaller bombs is that they can “take one building and not the whole block.”

But the FM 3-24 counterinsurgency manual recognizes that “bombing, even with the most precise weapons, can cause unintended civilian casualties.” Consequently, “an air strike can cause collateral damage that turns people against the host-nation government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory.” In other words, bombing is a proverbial Catch-22. Insurgents or terrorists may be killed, but no matter how much care is taken to avoid non-combatant casualties, innocent civilians may also be killed.

According to Wing Commander Andrew Brookes of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, “Even a 400-pound bomb has a wide area of blast and you are quite likely to kill some civilians. Kill a wife, children, mother or uncle and people become so angry the terrorist cycle starts all over again.”

Such phenomenon was evident in Iraq very early on. In November 2003, after U.S. F-16 fighter jets dropped several 500-pound bombs in Fallujah, one resident remarked, “We used to have hopes of the Americans after they removed Saddam. We had liked them until this weekend. Why did they drop bombs near us and hurt and terrify my children like this?”

Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Yet this may be the case of increasing the use of air power in Iraq.

Even if civilians are not killed (the military claims that 35 al-Qaida militants were killed in the attack that dropped 40,000 pounds of bombs and that there were no civilian casualties), bombing results in destruction and devastation (the attack destroyed 25 homes and 13 vehicles). And the reality is that a bombed-out house is a bombed-out house—while the returning occupants may be happy to have al-Qaida out of the neighborhood, they may not be too happy about their house. The wake of such wreckage runs contrary to FM 3-24 and another important tenant of counterinsurgency: “Successful counterinsurgents support or develop local institutions with legitimacy and the ability to provide basic services, economic opportunity, public order, and security.” So while bombing may be one solution to achieving security, it may also create setbacks to providing basic services and economic opportunity—and ultimately counterproductive to counterinsurgency.


Charles Peña is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute as well as a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project.

WinningNew from Charles Peña!
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According to President Bush, “the American people are safer” as a result of invading Iraq. True, Saddam Hussein has been removed from power. But al Qaeda, the group that planned and carried out the attacks on September 11, remains at large. Meanwhile, the White House has conceded that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks. Learn More »»






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