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Gary Langer on why Edward Luttwak's aerial bombing strategy can't win in Afghanistan.
Edward Luttwak’s impersonation of Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove leaves much to be desired ("In Praise of Aerial Bombing," March/April 2010). Luttwak’s suggestion that Hezbollah and Hamas have been cowed into submission is belied by accounts of their recent rearming efforts. But most to the point is the situation in Afghanistan, where public opinion polls by ABC News, the BBC, and Germany’s ARD TV channel have documented the corrosive effect of ill-targeted airstrikes on the attitudes of the Afghan public.
As allied bombardment increased in Afghanistan, backing for the U.S. mission there plummeted. By January 2009, 77 percent of Afghans called these airstrikes unacceptable, saying the risk to civilians outweighed the raids’ value in fighting insurgents. Western forces took the brunt of the blame for noncombatant casualties: Forty-one percent of Afghans chiefly criticized the United States and NATO for poor targeting.
"So what?" Luttwak might say: It is not for unfortunates on the ground to dictate military strategy.
But as Gen. Stanley McChrystal has said, "We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories — but suffering strategic defeats — by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage."
That unfortunate outcome was precisely the situation McChrystal had inherited. Views that U.S. troops and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were effective in providing security in Afghanistan dived in our polling from 67 percent in 2006 to 42 percent last January. Levels of local support for these forces fell from 67 percent to 37 percent.
Things have changed in the past year. McChrystal’s efforts to avoid civilian casualties have shown progress; the United Nations in January reported a 28 percent drop in 2009 in the number of such casualties attributable to U.S. and NATO’s ISAF forces. At the same time, Afghans’ views of their country’s direction have sharply improved, with ratings of local security one of a number of independent predictors of these hopes.
There are many pieces to the puzzle in Afghanistan, and daunting challenges still lie ahead. But our data make clear that the charm of Luttwak’s call for "killing enemies from the skies" cannot stand without an assessment of the costs when those bombs go astray.
Director of Polling
New York, N.Y.
Edward Luttwak replies:
Once something becomes an axiomatic truth — at least for some people — mere evidence will not change their minds. For Gary Langer, aerial bombardment must always fail, hence any contrary evidence must be wished away. Confronted by the plain fact that once constantly aggressive Hezbollah has not launched a single rocket against Israel since the Israeli Air Force retaliated on a large scale in 2006, Langer notes their "rearming efforts."
I note that Langer does not even try to explain away the plain statement of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who candidly admitted that he would never have risked bombardment had he known how devastating it would be. As for Hamas, the drastic decline in its attacks is all too obvious.
But Afghanistan is what matters. Langer writes as an admirer of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his counterinsurgency strategy, which requires tens of thousands of troops and tens of billions of dollars to win over the sympathies of the Afghans through "nation-building."
Thus, the United States is investing its wealth in obscure Afghan townships while China is investing in space. I favor a drastically cheaper way of preventing a Taliban victory, by arming the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras who must oppose them and by bombing the Taliban when they muster to fight. The policy Langer favors requires the United States to reshape Afghan culture; I prefer to let Afghanistan have its own history, with the United States intervening only from the air, and only when it must.