Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Afghan insurgent tactics shift to dodge airstrikes

By Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Afghan insurgents have learned to attack U.S. troops and scatter before they can be hit by airstrikes, a change in tactics that creates new pressure on coalition ground forces, say defense officials and military experts. Insurgents "have a pretty good idea of how long it takes for close-air support to arrive," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said. "We've seen some indications that they will fight for as long as they believe they have until close-air support will likely arrive on the scene." Military records show U.S. aircraft conducted a record number of aerial raids over Afghanistan in 2008 but dropped fewer bombs and missiles than they did in 2007. The changing insurgent tactics have the potential to limit the effectiveness of air power and put more pressure on U.S. and coalition ground troops, said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute. "The war in Afghanistan is not the kind of conflict where air power can be used to maximum advantage," he said. Finding insurgents "has proven devilishly difficult, and in Afghanistan that often requires sending ground troops to flush them out." There are now about 32,000 U.S. and 28,000 coalition forces in Afghanistan. Military leaders, including Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, say the U.S. presence will grow to about 60,000 troops and could stay that size for four years. Intercepted insurgent communications confirm they fear the airstrikes, which hit a record number in 2008, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael Holmes, commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing here. In one instance, he said, militants retreated from an ambush, saying, " 'No, stop. The birds are back.' " McKiernan said insurgents realize the propaganda value of civilian deaths, so they often attack coalition troops from areas crowded with civilians. "When the insurgency creates those casualties, they do it on purpose to create fear and intimidation to support their ambition," McKiernan said. Coalition jets flew 19,603 close-air support missions in Afghanistan in 2008 and dropped bombs or fired missiles 3,369 times, about 17% of the time. In 2007, coalition aircraft flew 13,965 missions and dropped munitions 3,572 times, or about 26% of the time. Airstrikes likely will increase in 2009 as U.S. forces push into areas held by the Taliban and other militants, says Tom Ehrhard, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and retired Air Force colonel. That raises the potential for more accidents. Ehrhard also predicts an increasing need for surveillance, supply and medical evacuation flights. Demand for aircraft that collect intelligence rose 44% in 2008 in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Air Force data. The watchdog organization Human Rights Watch reported in September that airstrikes in Afghanistan inadvertently had killed more than 650 civilians since 2006. That pales in comparison to the more than 3,000 Afghan civilians killed in deliberate attacks by insurgents. The group also reported last year that insurgents hid among civilians and used them as "shields" from airstrikes. The rugged, expansive terrain of Afghanistan makes it impossible to fight without airstrikes, says Marc Garlasco, a military analyst at Human Rights Watch and former intelligence analyst at the Pentagon. Although he expects more bombing in 2009, Garlasco says civilian casualties can be minimized with an effective counterinsurgency strategy.

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