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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

Published inConflict & Security

One Comment

  1. Charles S. Sullivan Charles S. Sullivan

    As was generally known about post-9/11 military activities in Afghanistan, large-scale military and air support operations were first initiated in March 2002 with Operation Anaconda. However, as I would learn through my pre-deployment studies, the application of air power in support of ongoing coalition ground force operations in the years that followed Anaconda would cover the entire spectrum of success and failure. As coalition efforts evolved and became more complex, security, reconstruction and development efforts, wrapped in counter-insurgency operations became increasingly more challenging, especially for NATO’s air power experts, as it was not the type of mission the alliance had contemplated during its 60-year history. Fortunately, many coalition partners operating in Afghanistan at that time, which included the British Army and the Royal Marines, the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps, and the Australian Defence Force had extensive expertise in counter-insurgency warfare and brought to the table tried and tested methodologies that would serve to guide other NATO nations who struggled to deal with a rapidly growing insurgent force.
    NATO’s highly evolved military doctrine and operating procedures, most of which evolved during the Cold War period, offered few solid lessons to ISAF coalition members as they dispatched their military forces to dirt airstrips and austere expeditionary facilities across a country that little resembled the gold-plated super bases and posh military garrisons of NATO’s European theatre of operation. Perhaps more useful were the lessons I learned from my tour of duty as a Forward Air Controller and the Officer Commanding a Tactical Air Control Party in NATO’s air support mission to the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in the Balkans in the 1990s when our air-land integration team, which was embedded in a ground-force battle group, could, most impressively, dissuade hostile enemy forces with the mere presence of fighter aircraft orbiting overhead. But even the Balkan conflict escalated to the bombing of Bosnian-Serb positions following the fall of Srebrenica, and later, the precision bombing of both military and civilian targets in and around Belgrade following the International Community’s failure to force a Serb withdrawal from Kosovo in 1999.
    Common to both fortress Europe and the historically-challenging Balkans was a relatively “linear” battle space with easily identifiable enemy forces wielding highly-anticipated and well-analysed military capabilities. Thinking that lessons and tactics from previous coalition campaigns could apply to NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan might explain why the crude and unsophisticated “search and destroy” tactics of some coalition members ended in defeat at the hands of the Taliban. The tragic failure of Operation MEDUSA in September 2006, which was touted at the time as the largest ground force operation in NATO history, underscored the difficulties that countries like Canada would experience when trying to draw even the most basic air effects and enablers into their “search and destroy” ground-force operations. Yet, at the other end of the spectrum were joint operations in the 2008-2009 timeframe in areas of Helmand and Uruzgan Province and in several locations across Regional Command East where the highest levels of competency was displayed in air-land integration and the application of advanced air effects and enablers in complex Special Forces and conventional force counter insurgency operations.
    Just as coalition ground commanders adapted their methods and tactics to respond to a rapidly evolving Taliban insurgency, so too did NATO’s team of air power experts adapt theirs as they championed new and, in some cases, “game-changing” air strategies to support counter-insurgency and complex joint operations. Resting on the shoulders of ISAF’s senior leadership team in the latter half of 2008 was the growing number of civilian causalities that threatened to undermine the central strategic imperative of NATO’s counter-insurgency effort — winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan population. Led by the counter-insurgency vision of Commander ISAF, General David McKiernan, which placed “the safety and security of the Afghan population” above all other priorities, a group of senior land and air power experts endeavoured to set in place new methods and measures that would re-shape the manner in which NATO coalition ground commanders would conduct their counter insurgency mission. Central to the protection of Afghan citizens was the manner in which “lethal force” would be applied against an adversary that chose to hide itself in the civilian population while conducting its attacks against coalition and Afghan security forces. The central role that air power was expected to play in supporting security operations, combined with the propensity of ground commanders to call in air strikes in response to insurgent attacks meant that NATO’s team of air power experts within the Air Component Element at ISAF HQ would need to do their part in developing unique new methods and procedures that would not only ensure the safety and security of the Afghan population, but would also allow the Afghan population to place their “trust and confidence” in NATO’s coalition force. This was the vision of ISAF’s commander in the fall of 2008 as ISAF restructured its headquarters and as the senior leadership team put the final touches on the commander’s “Tactical Directive” and “COIN Guidance” for counter-insurgency operations.
    The topics and discussion points I have included in this next section are diverse and cover a broad spectrum. My initial intent was not to dwell on many of the points covered by other contributors, but to highlight those areas unique to my 12-month tour of duty as NATO’s Air Component Commander, ISAF’s Director ACE and the Deputy Chief of Joint Operations. I have also endeavoured to include issues related to the realities of leading and managing a 42-member international coalition and, whenever appropriate, a few related leadership examples. The details I’ve included in the various discussion points throughout my manuscript have been, for the most part, drawn from my recollection of events, activities and conversations, and not from any official military diary or operations log. When I began to write down my account of various events, I was fortunate to have reference material from Operation Medusa in 2006, the Kunduz Air Strike in 2009 and speaking notes and briefing material from the various media events in which I participated as a member of ISAF’s senior leadership team. I should also mention that as my two chapters went through various phases of review and revision, requests were made of me to include greater detail and write on additional areas of interest unique to my perspective and vantage point.
    Due to the diverse nature of the topics, I have divided the manuscript into four sections. The first section discusses Operation Medusa ISAF’s air team beginning in 2005, how it evolved, and points related to the challenge of integrating air in land-centric joint and counter insurgency operations. I’ve also included discussion points related to managing NATO bases and airfields and, unique to my tour of duty, the 2009 force augmentation effort. Section two steps through each of the main “Lines of Operation” shouldered by ISAF’s air team, and highlights, where applicable, the manner in which tactical air activities contributed strategically to ISAF’s counter insurgency mission. The Lines of Operation I’ve selected to showcase are Air Medical Evacuation (Air MEDEVAC), Intra-Theatre Airlift, Armed Overwatch and Close Air Support, Electron Overwatch, and Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs). An important discussion point throughout section two is the imperative for coalition partners to contribute full and balanced combat teams, and to leave their military politics and community agendas at home. Section three focuses on joint operations such as Counter Narcotics, Special Forces and Dynamic Targeting and highlights the intrinsic nature of air power in these operations. Section three also covers a few significant leadership challenges I experienced during my 12-month tour of duty. The fourth and final section of Chapter Nine is my attempt to draw attention to what I believe were the greatest challenges of the ISAF mission in 2009, namely our effort in addressing civilian casualties, the inculcation of General McKiernan’s counter insurgency vision, and the “change of leadership” that saw General McKiernan replaced by General McChrystal. As a concluding discussion point I have included a summary of our achievements, which, in 2009, helped me be mindful of the contribution ISAF’s security mission was able to make in creating the conditions necessary for development, stability and governance.

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