General Petraeus also wants a Nobel Peace Prize.
November is ordinarily the month when the air war in Afghanistan — and really, the whole American-led campaign — ratchets down for the winter. This November, with Gen. David Petraeus in charge of the war effort, things have been different. Radically different. NATO fighter jets and attack planes launched their bombs and missiles on 850 separate missions this November. That’s three-and-a-half times the number of attack sorties they flew in November 2009.
It’s another sign of the bloody turn the Afghan conflict has taken since Petraeus took over. Petraeus unleashed special operations forces, who have killed or captured thousands of militants. His generals relied on massive surface-to-surface missiles to clear the Taliban out of Kandahar, and ordered tanks to help crush opponents in Helmand province. And then there’s the metastasizing air war.
In the last three months, NATO aircraft have fired their weapons on 2550 sorties, according to U.S. Air Force statistics provided to Danger Room. During the same period last year, there were less than half the number of violent sorties — just 1188.
But that was under a different general, who had a very different attitude about airstrikes — and about the utility of violent coercion in the Afghan campaign.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal famously corralled the use of air power as he tried to implement a counterinsurgency strategy that put winning the locals’ allegiance as the primary goal. Even troops under enemy attack found it tough to call in a strike from above. Better to expose U.S. forces to some danger than risk alienating the population.
In public, Petraeus and his generals said that there would be no major changes to the so-called “rules of engagement,” which govern the use of force. Strikes from the sky were still considered a “choice of last resort,” as Brig. Gen. Jack Briggs II told Danger Room in August. NATO officials tried to explain the uptick in these air attacks and other so-called “kinetic” events as a function of increased troop numbers, or of those soldiers pushing into previously-uncontested territory.
But with each passing month under Petraeus’ leadership, the shift to a more violent strategy becomes more apparent. By November, one U.S. military official was boasting about America’s “awe, shock and firepower.”
“The COIN [counterinsurgency] strategy is balanced by a counterterrorism strategy,” vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen James Cartwright recently told reporters. “When we started, we probably were more aligned with counterinsurgency. The emphasis is shifting.”
Taliban and other insurgent groups have responded in kind. Their bombs killed or wounded a thousand more troops in 2010 than they did in the previous year. The militants’ small-arms attacks on NATO forces nearly doubled.
President Obama and his national security team are meeting this morning, just before a review of the war’s strategy is set to be released. That review is not expected to suggest any major shifts in Petraeus’ approach. As White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, “the president feels confident that we are on track.”
By Noah Shachtman Email Author
December 14, 2010