Obama's Facts and Afghanistan's Casualties
William M. Arkin on National and Homeland Security
Sen. Barack Obama continued his criticism
of U.S. national security policy Monday, calling for more resources in Afghanistan. His remarks fueled the continuing debate, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, over his foreign-policy views and political strategy.
Hardly anyone, however, questioned the premise of what he said, or saw his remarks as an insult to the U.S. Air Force. Yes, the chairman of the Republican National Committee demanded an apology -- but no one from the Air Force did. So let me say it: The senator should be more careful with his facts and more skeptical of his assumptions.
Here's what Obama said in Nashua, N.H., about Afghanistan: "We've got to get the job done there, and that requires us to have enough troops so that we're not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there."
Leave aside the strategic implications of his comments. Is there a shred of evidence that airpower is either responsible for civilian deaths or is deadlier than ground operations?
I studied this issue earlier this year as a National Security and Human Rights Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard. I am also a long-time consultant to the Air Force and a veteran of civilian casualty assessments on the ground in a half dozen countries. And I'm not sure I can safely and accurately answer that question.
What I do know is that when civilians are killed in war zones these days by the U.S. military, the dominant presumption is that airplanes are somehow responsible. Partly the reason is a sheer matter of efficiency, to be blunt. Thousands of Army and Marine Corps and special operations units are patrolling in Afghanistan and Iraq every day. In the course of this fighting -- and this is neither remarkable historically or necessarily the "fault" of those forces -- civilians get in the way and are killed.
In the vast majority of cases, those civilian deaths are "collateral" to a legitimate military mission. If the unit takes all necessary precautions to avoid civilian harm and has no "intention" in killing civilians, the deaths are an unfortunate part of war -- especially this war, because the enemy hides behind and preys upon the civilian population.
Air power, on the other hand, is much more concentrated and lethal. Aircraft don't necessarily kill more civilians, but the efficiency and visibility of an air mission -- either in "support" of ground forces or independently targeted to remote areas -- generally results in a distinct report.
Typically, the number of daily missions in Afghanistan and Iraq daily where bombs are actually dropped can be counted on one hand. They might indeed be killing civilians, but the idea that they are responsible for more civilian deaths than ground forces is false. What is true about such deaths is that they are more obvious: We can see and count them.
Obama's suggestion that civilians are dying in Afghanistan because there are not enough troops on the ground would be difficult to prove. We do not have enough reliable data even to gauge the level of civilian deaths (at U.S. hands, moreover), let alone the "responsible" party within the U.S. military. We also lack reliable historical data to determine whether, when civilians do die, the number exceeds what is to be expected in this deadly enterprise.
Obama's remarks drew this response
from Mike Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee: "It is hard to imagine that anyone who aspires to be commander-in-chief would say such a thing about our brave men and women in uniform. Obama owes our armed forces an apology -- today."
So much for the RNC. But what about the AIr Force? Did anyone in the Air Force leadership think to call the senator and ask, "Why are you picking on us?" I talked yesterday with military contacts, and the answer seems to be no.
This might seem like an inconsequential aside. But think about it: If a president believes that airpower is deadlier than ground power, he might subtly (and not so subtly) make decisions that would place more American troops on the ground on the theory that it was the more humanitarian thing to do. Moreover, he might hold back on the use of air power when it is so much more efficient and capable.
Someone in the Air Force should pick up the phone -- not to bad-mouth the other services, but because Obama needs to understand that his offhand remark paints the wrong picture. "We" are not killing civilians in Afghanistan because there are not enough forces there, and "they" -- the Air Force -- are not killing more civilians because they are inherently more deadly or less sensitive. If more civilians are dying -- a questionable proposition -- we should learn why.
I don't mean to lecture Obama about getting his facts straight (although he should). I just wish the independent and nimble-thinking senator wouldn't fall into the trap of repeating what he has heard and read, especially when he is so skeptical of conventional wisdom. And It would be nice if someone in the Air Force (or at the Pentagon) thought to take advantage of this teachable moment.