I’m pretty much in agreement with Matt on the Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan:
As William S. Lind observed on June 11, the rise in strikes is indicative of the ongoing failure of the “surge” on the ground. After all, “calling in air is the last, desperate and usually futile action of an army that is losing” its ground-based counterinsurgency efforts. “Worse,” he writes, “the growing number of air strikes shows that, despite what the Marines have accomplished in Anbar province and General Petraeus’s best efforts, our high command remains as incapable as ever of grasping ‘fourth generation’ war.”
As far as Iraq goes, I’d just as soon see the United States give up as try to further perfect our techniques. Afghanistan, however, is still worth getting right. And who knows what will come up in the future. But if anything, things are moving in the wrong direction. Afraid of being left out of the counterinsurgency game, the US Air Force is writing its own manual, and we can bet it’ll find plenty of room for air power. And when that air power gets used, you can bet we’ll make two new enemies for every one we kill.
It’s worth making a couple comments. As much as I blame Air Force parochialism for this kind of nonsense, the USAF is not the only organization at fault. Many of the Coalition partners in Afghanistan are employing ground forces that are legally restricted from engaging in combat. I think these restrictions are nonsense, but they have had the effect of making an airpower contribution more attractive to some countries than a ground force contribution. The same dynamic that works in favor of the use of airpower in the US (no casualties, quick and easy, flashy) works in other countries, as well.
That said, USAF parochialism is a real problem. Having envisioned itself as the primary instrument for the projection of US military power, the USAF must be frustrated by the argument that its mission is counter-productive in the two wars the US is currently fighting. Having to justify the F-22 in the context of Iraq hasn’t helped, either. This situation seems to have spurred two reactions. On the one hand, we have Major General Charles Dunlap denouncing “boots on the ground zealots”, and attacking the idea that the war in Iraq is any different than any other war. On the other, the USAF continues to insist that its platforms are multitask capable, such that they can hunt IEDs, dispense candy, feed puppies, etc. As Matt points out, the USAF is also developing its own counter-insurgency manual, which will presumably not include the bit about airstrikes being counter-productive in a good counter-insurgency campaign.
All that said, there certainly is room for the use of air power in irregular and counter-insurgency warfare. A USAF counter-insurgency manual would be a good thing if I trusted the Air Force to use theoretical rather than parochial justifications for the use of air power in particular situations. But I don’t; I really don’t. Hopefully before too long, I’ll visit the question of whether the United States really needs a military branch dedicated to the use of air power, or whether we’d be better served by a re-integration of the Air Force into the two older branches.