Dawn was breaking over Afghanistan one day this month as Air Force surveillance planes locked in on a top-ranking insurgent commander as he traveled in secret around Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban.
But as attack aircraft were summoned overhead to strike, according to a recounting of the mission by Air Force commanders, the Taliban leader entered a building. Intelligence specialists scrambled to determine whether civilians were inside. Weapons experts calculated what bomb could destroy the structure with the least damage.
It had taken the American military many days to identify, track and target the senior Taliban officer. But the risk of civilian deaths was deemed too high. Air Force commanders, working with military lawyers, aborted the mission. The Taliban leader escaped.
“We miss the opportunity, but the beauty of what we do is we will get them eventually,” said Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, commander of American and allied air forces in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. “We will continue to track them. Eventually, we will get to the point where we can achieve – within the constraints of which we operate, which by the way the enemy does not operate under – and we will get them.”
In interviews at the air operations headquarters in Southwest Asia, American and allied commanders said that even as orders for air attacks in Afghanistan had increased significantly this year, their ability to strike top insurgent leaders from the air was severely restricted by rules intended to minimize civilian casualties.
The rules that govern dropping bombs and firing missiles are far more restrictive now in Afghanistan than in Iraq, senior Pentagon and military officials say.
The rules of engagement were reviewed and tightened in 2007 after a spate of civilian casualties, under Gen. Dan K. McNeill, then the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, and reviewed and revised again in April, officials said.
American commanders acknowledge that civilian casualties undermine support for the NATO-led stability mission exactly at a time when the Taliban is experiencing a potent resurgence across the country. They say Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, routinely complain about civilian deaths in meetings with Americans.
Military officers also acknowledge that their control over airstrikes is reduced when crews scramble to help NATO contingents under attack.
But air commanders say they have a commitment to support ground forces in trouble. Only last weekend, nine Afghan police officers were killed in western Afghanistan when Afghan and United States forces called in airstrikes on the officers, thinking they were militants.
According to the United Nations, 698 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year, compared with 430 in the same period last year. The United Nations report said nearly two-thirds of the deaths this year resulted from actions by the Taliban and other insurgents. The remainder were attributed to actions by Afghan government, American or allied forces.
In interviews at the air base, American and allied commanders expressed frustration about the obstacles they faced. They described what they said were missed opportunities and told how Taliban leaders, who live and operate among the population, have learned to exploit the restrictions.
“There are frustrations, without a doubt,” said a British officer, Air Commodore Simon Dobb, director of the combined air operations center. “But we understand what Clausewitz said, that war is an extension of policy. We are acutely aware of the sensitivities toward collateral damage,” the military term for civilians killed or wounded.
A reporter for The New York Times was given access to the Combined Air and Space Operations Center under a written agreement that neither the name of the base nor its location be published, in deference to the host nation’s concerns.
Over recent weeks, a wave of deadly Taliban attacks illustrated just how thinly American and NATO troops were stretched across Afghanistan, prompting Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to pledge to find additional forces for the mission.
In the meantime, orders for airstrikes in Afghanistan have increased in recent months, as American and allied warplanes attack Taliban hide-outs and swoop in to assist allied and Afghan forces under fire.
According to statistics compiled by the air operations center, during the first six months of this year, 1,853 munitions were dropped by air over Afghanistan – more than twice the 754 dropped in Iraq during the same period.
In June alone, 646 bombs and missiles were used in Afghanistan, the second highest monthly total since the end of major combat operations in 2002.
Air Force lawyers vet all the airstrikes approved by the operational air commanders. Senior Pentagon officials said the more stringent rules of engagement now in effect for Afghanistan specified the acceptable levels of risk to civilians for a priority attack. They said these more stringent rules required a significantly lower risk of civilian casualties than was acceptable in Iraq.
Missions in Afghanistan that are judged vital but highly risky to civilians may now require approval by the overall regional commander and, in some instances, even by the defense secretary himself, according to Pentagon and military officials.
“In their deliberate targeting, the Air Force has all but eliminated civilian casualties in Afghanistan,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst with Human Rights Watch. “They have very effective collateral damage mitigation procedures.”
The greater risk of civilian casualties, Mr. Garlasco said, comes in unplanned targeting, when American and allied troops come under attack unexpectedly and call for airstrikes for urgent help.
“When this immediate targeting needs to be done, an aircraft may not have the correct weapon for that target,” Mr. Garlasco said. “The aircraft may be rerouted to assist troops in a hard fight, and there is not time to do the collateral damage modeling they would want to do. In an attempt to help troops on the ground caught up in the fight, there have been situations where they have killed civilians.”
At the air operations center, targeting specialists spend hours before each mission measuring distances from the potential strike zone to the nearest house, building, mosque, school or hospital.
Vast numbers of public, religious and historic sites make up a computer database of no-strike zones. Special goggles are worn while reviewing digital images compiled from surveillance aircraft and satellites to give a detailed, three-dimensional view of the target area.
The bombs themselves are chosen carefully and sometimes modified. Some designed for air burst are instead programmed with a delayed fuse to bury themselves before exploding, thus reducing the blast range. One sort of bomb has even been loaded with less explosive, filled instead with concrete, to cause great damage where it hits but no farther.
“We explicitly guarantee extra benefits to civilians,” said Col. Gary Brown, the top military lawyer at the air operations center. Lawyers like Colonel Brown check that proposed operations conform to a complex body of military law, including the Geneva Conventions, acts of Congress and court decisions.
Although Air Force officials acknowledge that unintended civilian casualties have been inflicted, Colonel Brown also said the Taliban and Al Qaeda regularly fabricate reports of civilian deaths. He and other officers at the operations center say every mission has two dimensions: the fight itself and the information fight after that fight.
“The Taliban have a very efficient and very effective political machine,” Colonel Brown said.
Though target planners were frustrated by the inability to carry out the mission against the Taliban leader who took refuge in the building, another mission just days before, overnight on July 8, was carried out with the goal of eliminating another Taliban commander on the list of “high-value targets” – even though a last-minute change was ordered to prevent the loss of civilian life.
An array of surveillance vehicles, some remotely piloted, had tracked the Taliban leader around the clock for days, establishing what intelligence circles call “a pattern of life.”
When the Taliban leader and his followers camped for the night on the northwest outskirts of Kandahar, a team of targeting and weapons specialists at the combined air operations center went to work, scanning aerial photographs to gauge the distance to nearby structures and analyzing the blast radius of bombs and missiles aboard aircraft overhead.
It turned out that houses and other buildings were inside the blast range of those munitions, so the Air Force deployed an A-10 Thunderbolt. Its armor-piercing shells were designed for destroying Soviet tanks – but the aircraft can also strike with great accuracy without a large blast area.
The A-10 strafed the sleeping Taliban camp with cannon fire. According to later reports, buildings nearby went undamaged.
Source: NY Times
Date: July 23, 2008
By THOM SHANKER