On September 30, 2018, at least 21 Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) terrorists were killed in a United States (US) drone strike in the Sikanar area of Wazir Tang in the Khogyani District of Nangarhar Province.
On September 29, 2018, at least 15 Taliban militants, including three ‘commanders’ identified as Mawlawi Abdul Hai, Mullah Joja, and Mullah Basir; were killed and another seven injured in air-strikes conducted by Security Forces, (SFs) in the Qaisar District of Faryab Province.
On September 27, 2018, at least eight ISKP terrorists were killed in a drone attack conducted by US Forces in the Karangal area of Pech Dara District in the Kunar Province.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 4,197 militants have been killed and another 903 have been injured in 462 incidents of aerial operations (including 66 drone attacks) in 2018, thus far (data till October 4, 2018).
According to data provided by the US Air Forces Central Command (US AFCENT), 412 sorties out of a total of 3,649 sorties were used by US and Coalition Force to release at least one weapon (data till June 30, 2018). In 2017, out of 4,603 sorties at least 1,248 were used to release at least one weapon. In 2016, out of the 5,162 sorties at least 615 were involved in release of at least one weapon.
Number of Weapons Released (Operation Resolute support)
Source: US Air Forces Central Command Airpower Summary
The data clearly suggests that the use of airpower is of growing importance. US Air Force Major General James Hecker, speaking to reporters in a video teleconference from Kabul on February 7, 2018, stated that, though air power alone was unlikely to accomplish the task of defeating the militants, “But it is another pressure point that we can put on them.” Further, on June 27, 2018, Air Force Brigadier Gen. Lance R. Bunch, also the Vice Commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force Afghanistan observed, “The entire purpose behind our air campaign is to pressure the Taliban into reconciliation and help them realize that peace talks are their best option”.
According to US Forces, the US Air Force conducts 25 air-strikes on an average per week at present, compared to 40 air-strikes conducted by the Afghan Air Forces (AAF). AAF, currently comprising around 8,000 personnel and 129 aircraft in total, primarily deploys A-29 Super Tucano and MD530 F Cayuse Warrior light attack helicopters. These platforms mostly use unguided munitions, in contrast to the US Air Force which principally deploys precision guided munitions. Although AAF did drop its first GBU-58 laser-guided bomb on a Taliban compound to support Afghan Army Ground operations on March 22, 2018, these munitions cost much more than unguided munitions. Further, AAF lacks high accuracy sensors, techniques, etc., which lower the risk to non-combatants.
Air-power has been deployed principally with the objective of disallowing militants to amass in large numbers against strategically important locations.
The deterrent effect on the battlefield has, however, not been achieved. In fact, militant continue to record successes in conducting large-scale assaults against SF bases, check-points, and posts, with huge cadre participation.
On May 14, 2018, almost 2000 Taliban militants were able to amass to conduct a large scale multi-pronged assault in the Farah Province, close to the Iranian border, overrunning many check-points and even threatening the provincial center. The fact that militants still retain the initiative in the choice of target and can deploy in such large numbers calls into question the deterrent value of air power being deployed.
Aerial operations between January to June 2018, according to United Nations Assistance Mission’s (UNAMA) 2018 Mid Year report, have inflicted 353 civilian casualties – 149 killed and 204 injuries. UNAMA attributed 52 per cent of these casualties to the Afghan Air Force (AAF) and 45 per cent to International Military Forces, while three per cent remain unattributed. Another 263 civilians have been killed during the July-September 2018 period, according to partial data compiled by SATP.
In 2017, 631 civilian casualties (336 killed and 295 injured) were a direct consequence of aerial operations. In 2016, 590 civilian casualties (340 killed and 250 injured) resulted from aerial operations; preceded by 296 (147 killed and 149 injured) in 2015; 162 (58 killed and 104 injured) in 2014; 186 (64 killed and 122 injured) in 2013; 202 (77 killed and 125 injured) in 2012; 415 (153 killed and 262 injured) in 2011; 306 (135 killed and 171 injured) in 2010; and 622 (234 killed and 388 injured) in 2009.
Casualties caused due to aerial operations raise significant concern. Instances where UNAMA has contradicted the official Government version of such air-strikes also erodes confidence in the administration and SFs and go against the goal of political reconciliation. A UNAMA investigation report, released on April 2, 2018, focused on an air-strike conducted by AAF in the Dasht-e-Archi District in Kunduz Province in which there were at least 107 civilian casualties (36 killed and 71 injured). This included 81 children (30 killed and 51 injured). The Afghanistan Ministry of Defence (MoD) had earlier claimed that 18 Taliban militants, including a member of the ‘Quetta Council’, were killed in the air-strike, and acknowledged only nine civilians fatalities and 55 injured. MoD Afghanistan blamed the civilian casualties on Taliban militants, accusing them of using civilians as human shields.
Escalation in deployment of air-assets has little correlation to the strategic goals of deterrence, or creating a sense of security for the common people, thereby helping in inching towards the overall process of political reconciliation. According to the UNAMA Mid Year Report released on July 15, 2018, the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan hit a record high in the first half of 2018, with 1,692 civilian fatalities – the highest recorded in the same time period in any year over the last decade since the agency began documenting civilian casualties in 2009. There were 1,672 civilian deaths in 2017, 1644 in 2016 and 1615 in 2015 in the same time period.
The effectiveness of air-power depends completely on the quality of intelligence on the ground, and with the Taliban extending its disruptive capacities across Afghanistan, intelligence flows are far from adequate for an effective air campaign. This results in the mismatch between threat and response equations, and also reflects on the strategy-tactics dilemma that United States has been grappling with ever since the commencement of the war in 2001.