In a blistering speech on 16 February 2013, President Hamed Karzai called requests to foreigners by Afghan security forces for airstrikes on Afghan villages ‘shameful’.(1) His office said that tomorrow, he will issue a decree formally banning requests for strikes on what is being described in the English press as ‘residential areas’. The president’s move follows last week’s air strike in Kunar that reportedly killed about a dozen civilians, among them children. In previous times, Karzai could have blamed foreign forces for the deaths. But now, in keeping with protocols established between ISAF and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the airstrike was not conducted unilaterally, but was requested by Afghan forces themselves. This creates political and military complications for the president. However, report AAN guest blogger, Gary Owen* and AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, banning ISAF air strikes is likely to make it more dangerous for the ANSF and may not lead to fewer civilians being killed.
ISAF and particularly US airpower has consistently been, not only crucial to the success of Afghan and coalition counterinsurgency operations, but also a source of tremendous controversy, especially when civilians get killed. President Karzai has regularly hauled ISAF commanders over the coals over previous deaths. Along with pressure from human rights groups and media reporting, this has led to the restrictions governing air strikes being continually tightened; they are now so tight that AAN took the unusual move of praising General Allen for this policy.
At Karzai’s insistence, it has also become mandatory, in almost all circumstances, for Afghans to sign off air strikes. This means that, following the Kunar bombing (see reporting here and here), the president could not just tear a strip off the ISAF commander, as he used to. Transition of security from foreign to Afghan hands means that Karzai is being forced to re-position himself in relation to the war because when things go wrong, it is increasingly his responsibility. However, the president has never seen the war against the Taleban as his war. Instead, he has positioned himself with the suffering Afghan villagers and even his Taleban ‘brothers’. He often speaks about the insurgency as if the unrest would all die down if only the foreign forces would leave. He appears unconvinced of the need for fighting and has said that a low-tech ANSF should be enough to defeat the Kalashnikov-armed Taleban.(2)
So, reacting in a way which sees Karzai stay a champion for Afghan civilians in the wake of an air strike which was requested by Afghan forces is very tricky. Hence the strength of feeling in yesterday’s speech, made to a gathering of army offices at the National Defence College. He told them how he had summoned the commander of ISAF and US Forces General Joseph Dunford and been told that when, during a joint operation, the ‘foreigners’ and 200 personnel from the National Directorate of Security, had come under fire, it was the Afghan forces who had requested the air strike. He said:
If this is true, it is very regrettable and shameful. The personnel of our National Directorate of Security request foreign air support against only four terrorists and they bomb our villages. In this gathering, where you sit, you represent Afghanistan’s courage and zeal. How can you ask foreigners for support to bomb your own soil? Today, I would like to announce and will also issue order that no Afghan military personnel may, under any circumstances, ask foreigners to carry out an air raid during operations in our homes and villages. Have you got that? This prosperous and historical country is now in a stage where our own forces request air raids and our homes are bombed and 14 people including our women and children have been killed.
(Source National Afghanistan TV, Kabul, 16 February 2013, text from BBC Monitoring)
Usually, when Karzai gives such speech, we have come to expect pundits’ handwringing over the state of US-Afghan relations and criticism that this is just another move on Karzai’s part to demonstrate to the world that Afghans are in charge in Afghanistan. However, it may be that now Karzai and US/ISAF plans are actually dovetailing.
The goal of US forces in 2013 is to transition fully to a supporting role in the conflict, with the final drawdown of American combat forces completed by the end of 2014 (see AAN analysis here and here). What the United States may welcome more than anything is any excuse to more rapidly reduce its footprint here in Afghanistan, and Karzai’s announcement provides it with just that justification.
If the Afghan government does not want the help of US airpower, the question is raised: why should US aircraft remain in Afghanistan? Granted, while US troops are still actively engaging the insurgency, those assets are not likely to leave anytime soon, but it does provide greater impetus for those in the US government calling for an increase in the pace of US disengagement. In a rare instance of converging agendas, Karzai’s bid for increased sovereignty aligns perfectly with the US desire to extract itself from Afghanistan as quickly as it can.
In this light, it is perhaps not so surprising that the response of General Dunford was so positive. ‘This is a sovereign nation,’ he told a press conference earlier today. ‘The president is exercising his sovereignty’ (see reporting here and here). He said coalition forces believed they could conduct ‘effective operations within the president’s guidance’ because it falls within their current tactical directive; this orders troops to assume any building or person is a civilian unless proven otherwise and bans air strikes unless troops on the ground are in danger or they are expressly ordered by Dunford himself (see detail of the directive here). Dunford said there were other ways the Coalition could support Afghan partners, other than with air ordinance, although he did not explain further.
Unless Karzai is right and it is the presence of foreign troops which is driving the insurgency, several questions seem worth asking here. How will the further restriction of foreign air support affect the ability of ANSF to fight and can the Afghans themselves provide air support to ground forces? Also, would the absence of foreign air strikes actually help protect Afghan civilians?
Air support is one of a range of ‘enablers’ which the ANSF are short of and are dependent on foreign forces for. This is detailed in the latest report on the ANSF to Congress by the US Department of Defence (DoD) on page 65.(3)
Limited air-to-ground attack capabilities are being delivered by seven of the 11 Mi-35 helicopters. The operational life of the remaining four has now expired. In response, the [Afghan Air Force] may convert several Mi-17s into attack helicopters.(4)(This air-to-ground capability will transition in the future to the much more capable and modern Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft. Currently the LAS program is progressing through the acquisition procurement process. Contract award is anticipated to occur by January 2013, with the first aircraft deliveries occurring in the third quarter of 2014. The LAS aircraft will provide a highly capable western air-interdiction platform.(5)
A report in Flight International in January 2013, however, suggested this timetable might be overly ambitious:
A US Air Force tender to purchase 20 light attack aircraft for the Afghan air force has been delayed. The service was expected to award a contract for the Light Air Support (LAS) programme this January.
“It’s still in source selection but we do anticipate making a decision and announcement in the next few months,” the US Air Force says.
So the Light Air Support aircraft which were due to arrive late in 2014 may not be arriving until 2015 at the earliest. This means that the ANSF will have to rely on the support of their own aircraft (seven Mi-35 dedicated gunships and an assortment of Mi-17 cargo helicopters retrofitted to the air support role) to utilize airpower to counter insurgent threats.
It looks like the ANSF will not be getting anything like the air support from their own air force as they currently enjoy from the international military. One suggestion made by the ISAF spokesman is that the ANSF could use artillery instead (speaking on BBC Newshour here).(6) But artillery is far less accurate, as well as difficult to manoeuvre Afghanistan’s through mountains and deserts.
Even bearing in mind just how frightening and disruptive, hostile planes and attack helicopters in the sky are for many Afghan rural populations, withdrawing them may not necessarily lead to easier lives. In at least one province, we are seeing the impact of the end to air support. As AAN reported last week and in November 2012, the departure of the Norwegian PRT from Faryab in September and the loss of NATO air support has reduced the ANSF’s ability to conduct operations against insurgents. The result has been a Taleban resurgence with more IEDs, more assassinations and more suicide bombings – and many more dead Afghan civilians.
* Gary Owen is a civilian development worker who has spent the last three years in Afghanistan, working in Ghazni, Gardez, Khost and Kabul provinces. Previously, he spent 21 months in Iraq on two different deployments: in 2004, as an infantry officer in Taji, and, in 2008, as a civil affairs officer in Tikrit.
(1) Read it here.
(2) For example, Karzai said on 14 January 2013 that:
Regarding the Taleban and war, if the Taleban come in planes or Pakistan’s F-16s, we will definitely need F-16 fighter jets. The Taleban come on foot and we too should go on foot and protect our land. As far as the internal situation is concerned, we do not need an air force. We need it for the defence of our soil against foreigners.
[source: BBC Monitoring of National TV Afghanistan]
(3) A forthcoming AAN blog by Gary Owen will look at the latest 1230 report in more detail. His previous excoriating investigation at Pentagon assessments of ANSF can be read here.
(4) In comparison, ISAF has at least 100 of those assets: four US Attack Aviation Regiments with altogether 24 Apache attack helicopters, a number of reconnaissance helicopters (OH-58 Kiowas that are also equipped with rockets and machine guns) as well as US Marines or British attack helicopters.
(5) This is from the 1230 report which was due out in October 2012, but was delayed until December of 2012 because of the impact of Hurricane Sandy.
(6) Also hear Kate Clark being interviewed in the same programme.
Photo: Afghan forces ‘Mi-35 attack helicopters – by ISAF Media.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020
National Directorate of Security