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A pilot responds: No, General Petraeus, airpower isn’t the answer in Afghanistan

Seriously. Did retired Army General David Petraeus forget his doctoral training at Princeton?

Yoktoa mission highlight


By Maj. Jahara “Franky” Matisek, U.S. Air Force
Best Defense guest respondent

Seriously. Did retired Army General David Petraeus forget his doctoral training at Princeton?


By Maj. Jahara “Franky” Matisek, U.S. Air Force
Best Defense guest respondent

Seriously. Did retired Army General David Petraeus forget his doctoral training at Princeton?

For those unaware of his background, he wrote a 328-page dissertation called “The American military and the lessons of Vietnam: A study of military influence and the use of force in the post-Vietnam era,” which earned him a doctorate in international relations in 1987. In it, he essentially makes the argument (ironic now) that military leaders are more cautious in the use of military force due to their experiences of fighting an insurgency in Vietnam. Additionally, Petraeus also famously led the writing of The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (“FM-3-24″) and he was hailed a hero for his role in crafting the Iraq Surge (something that can now be debated given the rise of the Islamic State, ex post facto). Seeing how Petraeus is considered the brains behind the “COINista” (population-centric counterinsurgency) movement, why is he changing his tune (incorrectly) about fighting insurgents?

Petraeus’ opinion piece, co-authored with Michael O’Hanlon, ran in the Washington Post and stated, “It’s time to unleash America’s airpower in Afghanistan…” To support that assertion, it lays out an argument that more airstrikes and less restrictions from the administration are needed to beat back Taliban advances. It is a dogmatic article at best — and one-dimensional understanding of Afghanistan at worst. This article is something one would expect out of a typical war-hawk running for President who has no military experience or competence in understanding the varying tapestries of societal conflict.

Petraeus’ op-ed argument is akin to the narrow thinking espoused by most Generals in Vietnam who imagined they could “win” the Vietnamese War, but only if their prudish president allowed them to bomb anything and everything deemed worthy of an airstrike. This sort of magical thinking crudely equates that killing more ‘bad guys’ will facilitate a faster victory. Here’s the problem: Killing more of the enemy does not always equate to success, especially when fighting an insurgency. Surely Petraeus understood this when he wrote his dissertation on the Vietnam War, a war in which the U.S. inflicted 1.1 million combat deaths on North Vietnam, while the U.S. military had 41,000 troops killed in combat.

Not even overwhelming airpower by the French during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) could convince insurgents to “give up” or produce a French victory (politically speaking). This French “loss” came despite killing 152,000 insurgents, while suffering 10,000 French troop deaths in combat. While winning quantitatively has proven to be an expected standard of U.S. military warfare, this means nothing in the Clausewitzian sense, especially if tactical victories cannot equate to qualitative “winning” in the overall political arena. There is a reason why the Tet Offensive was a U.S. military victory, but was viewed as a political and psychological loss and a turning point of the war. Insurgent wars are more about winning qualitatively, not numerical triumphs. It is more than just the usual trite “winning hearts and minds” argument championed by most “COINista” novices; instead, it means learning to adapt and play to the social and power dynamics in a society to overcome an insurgency. Conventional tactics against an unconventional enemy do not work; if they did, the U.S. would have easily beaten the Taliban and other Iraqi insurgents over the last decade (hint: they are still there!). Somehow, Petraeus forgot both the lessons of the Vietnam War and of his time spent employing COIN strategies and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More troubling about Petraeus’ argument is that he bases most of his argument on the supposed “success” of the coalition airstrikes (in conjunction with indigenous ground forces) in the fight against the Islamic State. While it is true that Kurdish and Iraqi fighters, in conjunction with airstrikes, have made some gains, the battle against the Islamic State is no closer to victory than the U.S. ever was in its fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In fact, it seems that coalitional airstrikes against the Islamic state have not reduced their numbers or recruitment inasmuch that the coalition cannot kill them fast enough. Seeing that current estimates have shown coalition airstrikes as having killed approximately 23,000 Daesh fighters, such “airpower” has done little to deter or discourage recruitment. The Islamic State has recruited almost 30,000 foreign fighters alone since the beginning of coalitional airstrikes. How do you deter an enemy that grows faster than you can blow it up vis-à-vis airpower?

The fact today is that it is still true that defeating insurgents, such as the Taliban, requires ground forces to control towns during the day and at night. This means providing for the safety and security of the population in towns and villages across Afghanistan 24/7. No amount of “airpower” is going to coerce Taliban fighters into submission or convince them otherwise about their political ambitions to rule Afghanistan and wrest it from the foreign Christian powers occupying it. Moreover, “airpower” will never control a town or persuade leaders to side with the U.S. military, and historical precedent easily backs up this assertion. Problem is, most insurgents “control the night” and seek to control the local populace whether or not they are supportive. Airpower cannot — and never will — control a town (or population for that matter) without corresponding security forces to provide security and deter insurgents. The only way airpower can be effective in an insurgency is if the population can trust state military forces to protect them when they provide actionable COIN intelligence. Generals or Politicians can delude themselves into believing that airpower can win every war, but such platitudes rarely address the ideology or interests fueling most insurgencies. To put it simply, an airstrike cannot kill or destroy an idea or the impetus of a social movement that is inherent in most (if not all) insurgencies.

More troublesome about the Petraeus piece is that it completely ignores the critical problem in Afghanistan: finding effective power-sharing solutions between the varying tribes and clans. Afghanistan does not need more airstrikes; it needs political institutions that can provide order, stability, and security. In fact, it should be more surprising that one of the COIN authors of FM 3-24 (i.e. General Petraeus) argues for “exceptional care when using airpower in the strike role.” Yet, Petraeus contends in his op-ed that the “vigorous use of the airpower we already have in the region is the most logical and straightforward” step in fighting the Taliban. Think so? Well, current academic research examining the effects of airstrikes in Afghanistan shows that those airstrikes actually resulted in an increase in insurgent attacks. Is no one willing to admit that saving Afghanistan from itself and from the Taliban would require a long-term commitment from the international community and led by the U.S. that requires trillions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of troops, and dozens of developmental agencies and actors?

Perhaps a greater question to ponder is this: “Why does the Taliban appeal more to the Afghan populace than the current Afghan government the U.S. and its allies want to create and sustain?” Maybe most Westerners want to blindly believe that a plurality of Afghans want their societies to mirror the same liberal progressive societies of Europe and North America. If Samuel Huntington were still alive, he would scoff at the idea of such grand state building projects that ignored the fundamental basics of creating order first. We should acknowledge that the Taliban are not going anywhere anytime soon, because they control the drug trade there.

Pacifying an insurgency requires more than just bullets and bombs; it necessitates a political solution. I revere General Petraeus but his blind faith in airpower is wrong-headed. It will not pacify Afghanistan.

Major Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek is an Ph.D. Student at Northwestern University, specializing in airpower and insurgencies. He has flown 200 combat sorties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Upon completion of his doctoral studies, he will teach Military and Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The views expressed are his and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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