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Afghanistan: Deaths Of Afghan Children Raise Questions About U.S. Strategy, Intelligence

  • Andrew Tully

American forces in Afghanistan said they are now using a major ground offensive to pursue Afghan insurgents and members of the outlawed Taliban militia. The statement comes after an American bombing mission went awry this weekend, killing nine children and an adult instead of the Taliban member it was meant to be targeting. Military analysts say ground operations are a far slower strategy than air strikes, but are much less likely to cause unwanted casualties like those this weekend.

Washington, 9 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Saturday's air strike in the southeast Afghan town of Hutala led to mourning for nine slain children. It also led to bitterness among local Afghans, despite an apology from U.S. military command.

Reports from Hutala quote Khial Mohammed Hoseini, the deputy governor of Ghazni Province, as saying the anger was appropriate, apology or no. Afghanistan's interior minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, was more diplomatic in speaking about the incident in Kabul on 7 December.

"The government has asked for explanations and also has launched an investigation into the incident," Jalali said.

The U.S. military in Afghanistan does not make such mistakes often, but when it does, it faces tough questions about its reliance on air power in efforts to kill even a single individual, and the quality of the intelligence it uses to locate such people.

In fact, for the past decade, the U.S. civilian and military leadership have been accused of relying too heavily on air power as a way to avoid American casualties for fear of saddening and angering the U.S. public.

Jack Spencer is a policy analyst on defense and national security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative private research center in Washington. Spencer says Americans are averse to casualties only if they do not understand why the United States is militarily involved in a particular conflict, or if the conflict is not seen as being in America's interest.

Spencer tells RFE/RL that any U.S. aversion to casualties is rooted in the country's military operations of the 1990s -- primarily in Somalia and the Balkans. He says these operations did not advance U.S. interests or enhance security.

"For that type of thing, yes, the United States has a low tolerance for casualties. However, when you're in an operation, as we are in Afghanistan, as we are in Iraq, where there is a compelling national security imperative that is understood by the public, then the fact is there is no casualty aversion. In fact, the United States public is very supportive of doing what we need to do around the world in order to advance not just American interests but, I think, American ideals," Spencer said.

Further, Spencer says it is wrong to dismiss the value of broadly used air power in any modern conflict. He says a ground force hunting down insurgents moves too slowly, and usually too noisily, to enjoy the element of surprise, and air power often can employ more powerful weapons than a small group of soldiers.

As for accuracy, Spencer contends that air strikes are getting more precise every year, and that military aircraft are appreciably more capable of this precision than their predecessors of only a few years ago.

Spencer says a failure of intelligence certainly could have led to this weekend's errant air strike. For example, he says, the pilots may have accurately struck the target that was dictated to them, not realizing that it was the wrong target.

But Spencer quickly notes that intelligence often changes quickly during war: "If they got the coordinates right and there was a bunch of kids in there, then something was wrong. Tactical intelligence is a very mercurial thing."

Finally, Spencer says, people should not put too much weight on such incidents, as distressing as they are. He says mistakes are bound to happen in time of war, and that legitimate civilian casualties are recognized as inevitable even by international laws and other conventions governing warfare.

"The most modern interpretations of these things understand that there will be civilian casualties [and] you do what you can to minimize those civilian casualties. [But] there is no country in the world [besides the United States] who devotes so much time, so much energy, so many resources, and puts their own troops in danger sometimes [to avoid civilian casualties]," Spencer said.

Kenneth Allard sees the use of both air strikes and intelligence much differently. Allard is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in Europe as an intelligence officer.

He tells RFE/RL that he agrees that a well-informed public would not be averse to casualties among its forces if the cause were just.

But Allard says Americans would never accept casualties in a just war that was being fought inappropriately. He says that includes using aircraft to carry out missions that are better handled by ground troops.

"It is actually a violation of common sense and good battle tactics to try and do things from the air that are better done on the ground. As we saw in Kosovo, you unnecessarily expose civilians to risk when you fail to put the instruments of power in place to do that job," Allard said.

Fear of casualties aside, Allard says the administration appears to be too reliant with the technology of air warfare, which he concedes may be impressive, but not effective enough to win a war on its own.

"I really don't think that the administration has fully come to terms with the fact that the kind of war that they have to fight you cannot fight exclusively through the air. [Air power] can do a lot for you, but it absolutely will not win for you. The ultimate form of political power is the man on the ground with a gun," Allard said.

In fact, Allard says high technology also appears to have influenced the administration in intelligence-gathering. He says the U.S. military is spending far too much energy on unmanned spy planes and other electronic equipment and too little energy -- and time -- on old-fashioned spies trained to infiltrate the enemy.

"When you're talking about human intelligence, you have to start digging the well [long] before you become thirsty. And in human intelligence, you've got to begin to train for that, begin to position yourself for that, years before you think you're actually going to need it. In that respect, we've put far too much emphasis on technology. Whether you're talking about a peacekeeping operation in Bosnia or Kosovo, or if you're talking about in Iraq, it's been a consistent weak point for us," Allard said.

Perhaps the newly announced ground operation to fight insurgents in Afghanistan will lessen the likelihood of more civilian casualties. But it will probably be a long time before Afghanis forgive the Americans for what appears to be the unnecessary deaths of nine of their children.