US Air War Challenges

The US bombing campaign in Afghanistan faces unprecedented obstacles.

US Air War Challenges

The US bombing campaign in Afghanistan faces unprecedented obstacles.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

The problems facing the US-led military alliance in Afghanistan have already become sadly apparent.

On the second night of the bombing, a missile struck the Kabul office of an UN-affiliated demining agency, Afghan Technical Consultants, killing four guards and wounding two UN staff.

The building was completely destroyed from the powerful blast, provoking a stern UN response. "People need to distinguish between combatants and those innocent civilians who do not bear arms," said UN spokesperson Stephanie Bunker.

Despite US claims of high hit rates, sources in Afghanistan report that several other missiles have gone astray.

From the onset of the military campaign in Afghanistan, it is clear that Washington will prosecute an air war. It is not anticipating sending ground troops into Afghanistan, preferring to let Afghan proxy forces such as the Northern Alliance do the dirty work.

The estimated 30,000 US troops dispatched to the region are simply insufficient in number to provide the necessary manpower and logistical back-up to carry out a ground offensive.

In the Gulf War and Kosovo conflicts, we saw a build-up of forces ten times greater before the military was willing to seriously consider sending in the troops. In Afghanistan, US forces in the region are here for logistical support, intelligence gathering, border security, search and rescue operations, and some isolated special operations.

The US offensive against Bin Laden and his Taleban supporters - dubbed America's "War on Terrorism" by the jingoistic mainstream media - began Sunday night Afghanistan time with the launch of some fifty cruise missiles and bombing raids by around forty combat planes.

Already faced with an inevitable backlash from many Muslim countries, the US was careful to select only the "hardest" military targets, aiming to limit civilian casualties to an absolute minimum. But even on the first day, many of the US bombs missed their target.

On the main road between the capital Kabul and the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar, American forces targeted the Taleban radar station and military base located near Moqor. But, instead, the bombs fell perilously close to the villages of Moqor and Gilan.

Similarly, the US military attempted to destroy a bridge on the main road near Gardez, probably attempting to cut off the road between Kabul and the area of Khowst, a known location of some of the most extensive training bases associated with Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. Again, the bombs missed their target and fell near civilian compounds.

Reports emerging from the city of Kandahar tell of a similar miss. There, according to local sources contacted by CNN, US bombs missed a compound associated with Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, instead hitting another civilian compound in the densely inhabited region and causing casualties.

The US and its allies face two main obstacles in their air campaign over Afghanistan that make this conflict very different from prior air wars in the Balkans and the Gulf region.

First, there are very few "hard" military targets to hit in Afghanistan. The Taleban and Bin Laden's al-Qaeda group operate more like a guerilla force than an organised government, and Afghanistan lacks the large military bases, defense headquarters, command centers, weapons factories and other such targets that make military planners salivate.

Military planners love to build long target lists, but are coming up short in Afghanistan. With few hard targets to hit, it will be difficult for the US alliance to significantly affect the Taleban and al-Qaeda's military capacity from the air.

And Washington is also fighting against time, with winter rapidly encroaching and the possibility of a humanitarian disaster for Afghanistan's starving population.

Second, smart bombs need very accurate intelligence, and are not nearly as accurate as claimed by their military backers. In Kosovo, Serb forces ultimately retreated with a significant amount of their heavy weaponry intact, even after months of intensive bombing.

This, despite the fact that US intelligence on targets in Kosovo was based on years of preparation - the Kosovo observer missions that preceded the bombing campaign were packed with Western military personnel who undoubtedly passed on accurate target information to NATO or US military planners.

No such accurate intelligence exists in the case of Afghanistan, making it much more difficult to hit targets and avoid civilian deaths.

Not all of the US bombs went off target, of course. Many bombs fell well outside city limits on airfields and suspected terrorist training bases, in the vicinity of the capital Kabul, and the neighboring cities of Jalalabad and Kandahar.

Other unconfirmed reports by the opposition Northern Alliance speak of US bombing of Taleban-controlled airfields near the northern Afghan towns of Mazar-e-Sharif, Sheberghan and Kunduz.

For the moment, civilian casualties appear to be low. When asked about this at a press conference in Pakistan's capital Islamabad, the Taleban's sole foreign ambassador Abdul Salaam Zareef appeared to pull a figure out of thin air, saying than more than twenty non-combatants had been killed in Kabul. There appears to be little to support such a figure: none of the independent sources contacted inside Kabul mentioned civilian deaths.

However, the Western air-strikes have caused some in Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar to panic and flee their homes for the mountains. "Civilians in the area around Kabul airport had a very unpleasant night and most have left their homes," a leading humanitarian official who had spoken to contacts in Kabul told IWPR, after the first night of bombing. "An awful lot of people are leaving Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Kabul."

The situation appears calmer in the northern Taleban-controlled city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which is anticipated to come under attack from Northern Alliance forces in the coming days.

According to local sources, people here are getting on with their difficult lives as normal, and there is no sign of panic. The Taleban has sent thousands of fighters north to reinforce Mazar-e-Sharif, and perhaps to challenge the deployment of US forces in nearby Uzbekistan.

Many of those fleeing Kabul are not heading for Pakistan because they fear renewed attack on the city of Jalalabad, which they would have to pass through. Instead, they are making their way south to Paktia and Ghazni districts on the Pakistan border.

Several hundred Afghan civilians were reported at closed frontier posts near Quetta and Torkam, but these figures do not differ significantly from what can be expected on normal days.

Humanitarian agencies are bracing for a more massive influx of refugees into Pakistan as fleeing civilians begin reaching the Pakistan border in the coming days. They pray the authorities will relent and agree to open their borders.

The start of the US-led air campaign has seriously shaken Afghan civilians, who were expecting the bombs to come but did not anticipate them falling so close to their homes.

US officials claimed that the Taleban would not know what hit them once the bombing started, but it is the civilian population's reaction that should now concern them. Many Afghans have little love for the Taleban movement, but could be forced into its arms if they personally feel targeted by the American bombing campaign.

Peter Bouckaert monitors armed conflicts for Human Rights Watch.

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