2014 will see the end of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan after 13 years of intervention. Following early successes by US troops in removing the Taliban from power and displacing al-Qaeda, NATO forces were faced with an increasingly strong insurgency and struggled to win support for the replacement Afghan government under President Karzai. The use of airpower in Afghanistan attracted a great deal of negative press coverage particularly with regard to the counterproductive effects it was seen to have caused through civilian casualties. ISAF failures in Afghanistan brought to the fore the limits of conventional military power in complex counter-insurgency operations and contributed to the now widely held view that airpower had lost its utility in this new age of asymmetric and irregular warfare. This view of airpower, however, presents a one-sided portrayal of the roles it played in Afghanistan. Whilst the utility of strategic bombing and high-tech ‘precision strikes’ in counterinsurgency campaigns is certainly questionable, such uses of airpower were but one facet of its deployment in Afghanistan. A more complex look at the roles airpower played in Afghanistan shows that in other areas – and in non-kinetic operations (that is, where no actual ‘strike’ takes place) in particular – airpower was used effectively and gave ISAF forces a considerable advantage.
Mobility has been a centrally important contribution of airpower to the Afghan operations. The vast size and difficult terrain of Afghanistan has meant that helicopters and aeroplanes have been crucial in transporting personnel and equipment across the country. The use of airpower for mobility can be split into three broad categories, all vitally contributing to different aims of the operation. Firstly, the transportation of troops and equipment has been crucial as the lack of infrastructure (highways, roads and train tracks) meant that ground vehicles faced difficulties, particularly in rural areas and over long distances. Air transport also mitigated the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), land-mines and road-side bombs used by the insurgents, and enabled rapid evacuation of force casualties to minimise fatalities.
Secondly, the use of airpower to transport civilian authorities and equipment has been important, as the broader strategic success of the mission depends on the viability of the new Afghan civilian leadership. Airpower has enabled the safe transport of important individuals to remote parts of the country, which made a contribution to ‘winning hearts and minds’ for the new Afghan government. Helicopters, flown by the newly established Afghanistan Air Force (AAF) with ISAF support, were used to support the 2010 parliamentary elections for the Wolesi Jirga, distributing ballots to various remote locations across the country. This demonstrates one of the important roles that airpower can play in counterinsurgency operations, by strengthening the fledgling Afghan regime and establishing control and authority unimpeded by insurgents on the ground.
Thirdly, the use of airpower for mobility has been crucial for various humanitarian operations, including disaster relief and rescue. This is important as the ability to respond to natural disasters illustrates the strength and effectiveness of the new Afghan government and the resilience of the state to internal and external threats. For example, the AAF and ISAF air forces responded to flooding in July 2010 in north-west Afghanistan. As well as the positive immediate effect of this rescue operation, many civilians recorded it on their mobile phones, thus creating good publicity for both the expeditionary ISAF forces, and the growing AAF. As Allen Peck noted in a study of the use of airpower in irregular warfare, “by providing humanitarian assistance, medical support and transportation for government officials to remote areas, airpower can promote the government’s credibility and improve the quality of life for its population… [and] can have significant effects in the overall campaign against the insurgents”.
Another key contribution of airpower to non-kinetic operations in Afghanistan has been the provision of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). Situational awareness is critical to ground forces, as they rely on knowledge of exactly where they are, where they are going next, and of any threats that they might encounter when conducting their missions. This information is collected by UAVs, satellites and manned aircraft which enjoy the advantage of height in seeing a broader view of the situation on the ground. ISR is vital in monitoring insurgent activity and identifying targets for both aerial and ground attacks against hostile forces, enabling ISAF control and command to plan their operations with a greater understanding of what is happening on the ground.
Airpower also played an important role in facilitating communication with Afghan civilians. Following the Kandahar prison outbreak in June 2008, for example, in which over one thousand inmates escaped, aircraft were used to drop leaflets on the city reassuring the population that the Afghan National Army, with support from ISAF forces, had restored order and security. This acted as good propaganda for the operation and contributed to ‘winning hearts and minds’, as the Afghan civilian population could see that the coalition forces, and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), were working to protect them.
Finally, airpower indirectly played an important non-kinetic role in training the AAF, thus contributing to post-conflict stabilisation. NATO’s Training Mission in Afghanistan was established in November 2009 to help the ANSF become self-sufficient and ready for ISAF to withdraw. This included training the AAF, which now has approximately 6700 personnel, including over 30 women. The AAF has a fleet of 92 aircraft (planes and helicopters), and has dealt increasingly independently with security issues in Afghanistan.
In sum, the utility of airpower in Afghanistan and irregular warfare more generally should not be judged on the (often counterproductive) effects of strategic bombing alone. Airpower can be used in ways that do not risk collateral damage and civilian casualties, which bring bad press and arguably work against the achievement of long-term strategic goals. Of course, counterinsurgency operations encompass much more than traditional military aspects and the situation in Afghanistan clearly demonstrated the importance of strengthening governance and economic development in addition to implementing security. Positive achievements must not be overlooked. An acceptance of the limits of the use of military force in counterinsurgency operations and the increasing application of airpower to non-kinetic operations have contributed to slow and steady progress in Afghanistan. Airpower as a conventional military instrument certainly did not achieve victory – whatever ‘victory’ might mean in the Afghan context – in any traditional sense of the word. However, it would be wrong to conclude that it had no utility per se. Its major contribution was to act as a force multiplier for ground troops, increasing the scope of their actions. Non-kinetic applications of airpower also contributed towards the strengthening of governance, stability and resilience of the country throughout the insurgency.
Holly Welsh is currently studying for an MSci in International Relations and Global Issues