by Lara M. Dadkhah, Small Wars Journal
American airpower seems to have lost some of its mystique in the war in Afghanistan. American air dominance, including its ability to conduct airstrikes in close air support of coalition troops, has been and continues to be critical to the Afghan war effort. Close air support, in particular, is allowing the United States and NATO to fight an energized insurgency with far fewer troops than it needs. Yet if one follows press reports from the Afghan theatre, what Eliot Cohen once characterized as an "unusually seductive form of military strength," has become a source of consternation for the United States and a ready cudgel with which to beat America's troubled prosecution of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Tragic news stories of American airstrikes gone wrong and their resultant civilian casualties trump more mundane analyses of the Afghan government's failings or the (by now routine) atrocities committed by Afghan insurgents. American airpower, it seems, has become a victim of its own misunderstood successes in the Persian Gulf War and Kosovo bombing campaign. Its famed precision makes any costly error unacceptable, inflames Afghan and international public opinion, and forces American defense officials and military leaders to observe endless rituals of public apology. The irreconcilable conflict between the immutably violent nature of war and the fiction of a "bloodless" use of force has trapped the United States between the Scylla of military exigency and the Charybdis of public sentiment.
This paper will briefly examine the issue of airstrikes during close air support (CAS) operations in the Afghan theatre. It will give a broad overview of the use of airpower in OEF, then examine the controversy surrounding American airstrikes in Afghanistan. It will take the position that given the existing constraints on the American war effort (troop shortages, the vast and difficult Afghan terrain, limited human intelligence, cross-border insurgent sanctuaries, and increased insurgent activity), CAS is vital to the prosecution of the Afghan war. It will further argue that, even as mounting civilian casualties are alienating the Afghan populace, excessive restraint in the use of airstrikes may be handicapping U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts.