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Monday, January 16, 2006
 
How Domestic Pressures Against the Iraq War Will Cause Mass Killing

War is a messy business in which civilians will die. However, modern technology has given soldiers a much greater control over the physical effect of the weapons of war. This control, with sufficient planning and supplies, greatly reduces the unintentional casualties of war (collateral damage) and allows modern industrialized nations to wage war while upholding the principle of distinction.

Notice that I mentioned planning and supplies, suggesting that a war waged either on the cheap, or without popular political backing, reduces the ability of soldiers to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and increases the amount of civilian deaths during times of war.

Political pressures on the Bush administration have caused it to 1) make a strong case for the war to keep some public support and 2) begin talk of "drawing down" troop levels in Iraq. These troops generally refer to infantry and armor divisions of the Army, who's main task right now is to kill insurgents, capture territory from hostile elites, remain in control of that territory, and provide welfare and infrastructure for the population. The infantry divisions are aided by air support; air power, based primarily on aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean, allows the armed forces to project military power more quickly in ways that limit American casualties and to provide intelligence on the movements of enemies.

As the troop levels reduce, Washington will project military power through its air war to the detriment of the lives of civilians. Seymour Hersh, writing for the New Yorker, suggests: "A key element of the draw down plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American air power. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units. The danger, military experts have told me, is that, while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground troops are withdrawn, the over-all level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what."

The basic problem is simple: the Administration needs to continue prosecuting the war vigorously while reducing troops. The Clinton and Nixon administration provide models for warfare with lower American casualties: Kosovo and Cambodia, both of which relied heavily on air power to do the dirty work. No one doubts the President's resolve to bring "freedom" to the Iraqis; Bush, however, must do something about the mounting casualties, the overstretched armies, and the perceived global overreach of his Administration. Hersh observes:
“We’re [the Administration] not planning to diminish the war,” Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me. Clawson’s views often mirror the thinking of the men and women around Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “We just want to change the mix of the forces doing the fighting—Iraqi infantry with American support and greater use of airpower. The rule now is to commit Iraqi forces into combat only in places where they are sure to win. The pace of commitment, and withdrawal, depends on their success in the battlefield.”

He continued, “We want to draw down our forces, but the President is prepared to tough this one out. There is a very deep feeling on his part that the issue of Iraq was settled by the American people at the polling places in 2004.” The war against the insurgency “may end up being a nasty and murderous civil war in Iraq, but we and our allies would still win,” he said. “As long as the Kurds and the Shiites stay on our side, we’re set to go. There’s no sense that the world is caving in. We’re in the middle of a seven-year slog in Iraq, and eighty per cent of the Iraqis are receptive to our message.”

Moving to an air war further conflates political and military objectives in target selection. With Americans picking the targets, the politics of the situation demands selecting targets who seem to be insurgents and whose removal does not unduly cause civilian casualties or ruptures in relations with civilians leaders. If American ground forces become secondary to Iraqi forces, and the Iraqi military leaders are selecting the targets, these choices occur with the context of a highly contested civil war. "Air Force commanders, in particular, have deep-seated objections to the possibility that Iraqis eventually will be responsible for target selection. “Will the Iraqis call in air strikes in order to snuff rivals, or other warlords, or to snuff members of your own sect and blame someone else?” another senior military planner now on assignment in the Pentagon asked. “Will some Iraqis be targeting on behalf of Al Qaeda, or the insurgency, or the Iranians?”"

The shift to air warfare from ground warfare is even more frightening when considering how under-reported the air war is.
The American air war inside Iraq today is perhaps the most significant—and under-reported—aspect of the fight against the insurgency. The military authorities in Baghdad and Washington do not provide the press with a daily accounting of missions that Air Force, Navy, and Marine units fly or of the tonnage they drop, as was routinely done during the Vietnam War. One insight into the scope of the bombing in Iraq was supplied by the Marine Corps during the height of the siege of Falluja in the fall of 2004. “With a massive Marine air and ground offensive under way,” a Marine press release said, “Marine close air support continues to put high-tech steel on target. . . . Flying missions day and night for weeks, the fixed wing aircraft of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing are ensuring battlefield success on the front line.” Since the beginning of the war, the press release said, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing alone had dropped more than five hundred thousand tons of ordnance. “This number is likely to be much higher by the end of operations,” Major Mike Sexton said. In the battle for the city, more than seven hundred Americans were killed or wounded; U.S. officials did not release estimates of civilian dead, but press reports at the time told of women and children killed in the bombardments.

Michael Schwartz adds:
One of the true scandals of media coverage of the war in Iraq has been the simple fact that you -- relatively small numbers of you anyway -- had to visit Tomdispatch.com, or Juan Cole's invaluable Informed Comment blog, or Antiwar.com, or other Internet sites to find out anything about the fierce (if limited) ongoing air war in that country. The American media's record on coverage of the air campaign against the Iraqi insurgency since Baghdad was taken in early April 2003 has been dismal in the extreme. Our military has regularly loosed its planes in "targeted" attacks on guerrillas in Iraq's heavily populated urban areas (where much of the fighting has taken place), sometimes, as in largely Shiite Najaf and largely Sunni Falluja in 2004, destroying whole sections of major cities, in part from the air. Despite this, American reporters in Iraq have essentially refused to look up, or even to acknowledge the planes, predator drones, and low-flying helicopters passing daily overhead.

In these years, only one journalist, Bradley Graham of the Washington Post, seems to have visited an American air base in Iraq and written a piece about it -- an anodyne piece from an otherwise good reporter. As far as I can tell, no American reporters have been assigned to, or written about, the part of the American air campaign that has been mounted from outside Iraq -- from air bases in places like the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, or from aircraft carriers; and hardly more has been written from the United States where our fleet of unmanned but deadly Predator drones are (remotely) controlled. Because the military has continued to release limited amounts of information on its air campaign, the odd line or even paragraph (clearly taken from military press releases or news conferences) about bombing or missile runs on Iraq's urban areas made it into boilerplate wire-service news stories; otherwise the air campaign has simply been missing in action.

Air power, without a ground presence doing a Jenin-style door to door search, harms American efforts to win over the population and causes more civilian death. Reporter Dahr Jamial, in an article entitled "Living Under the Bombs" wrote:
One of the least reported aspects of the U.S. occupation of Iraq is the oftentimes indiscriminate use of air power by the American military. The Western mainstream media has generally failed to attend to the F-16 warplanes dropping their payloads of 500, 1,000, and 2,000-pound bombs on Iraqi cities -– or to the results of these attacks. While some of the bombs and missiles fall on resistance fighters, the majority of the casualties are civilian –- mothers, children, the elderly, and other unarmed civilians.

"Coalition troops and Iraqi security forces may be responsible for up to 60% of conflict-related civilian deaths in Iraq -- far more than are killed by insurgents, confidential records obtained by the BBC's Panorama programme reveal." As the BBC reported recently, these numbers were compiled by Iraq's Ministry of Health, in part because of the refusal of the Bush and Blair administrations to do so. In the case of Fallujah, where the U.S. military estimated 2,000 people were killed during the recent assault on the city, at least 1,200 of the dead are believed to have been non-combatant civilians.

"Some of my friends in Fallujah, their homes were attacked by airplanes so they left, and nobody s found them since," said Mehdi Abdulla in a refugee camp in Baghdad. His own home was bombed to rubble by American warplanes during the assault on Fallujah in November -- and in Iraq today, his experience is far from unique.

All any reporter has to do is cock an ear or look up to catch the planes roaring over Baghdad en route to bombing missions over Mosul, Fallujah and other trouble spots on a weekly – sometimes even a daily basis. It is simply impossible to travel the streets of Baghdad without seeing several Apache or Blackhawk helicopters buzzing the rooftops. Their rumbling blades are so close to the ground and so powerful that they leave wailing car alarms in their wake as they pass over any neighborhood.

With its ground troops stretched thin and growing haggard -- 30% of them, after all, are already on their second tour of duty in the brutal occupation of Iraq – U.S. military commanders appear to be relying more than ever on airpower to give themselves an edge. The November assault on Fallujah did not even begin until warplanes had, on a near-daily basis, dropped 500-1000 pound bombs on suspected resistance targets in the besieged city. During that period, fighter jets ripped through the air over Baghdad for nights on end, heading out on mission after mission to drop their payloads on Fallujah.

Throughout much of urban Iraq, people tell stories of being terrorized by American airpower, which is often loosed on heavily populated neighborhoods that have, in effect, been declared the bombing equivalents of free-fire zones.

"There is no limit to the American aggression," comments a sheikh from Baquba, a city 30 miles northeast of the capital. He agreed to discuss the subject of air power only on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from the U.S. military.

"The fighter jets regularly fly so low over our city that you can see the pilots sitting in the cockpit," he tells me, using his hand to measure the skyline and indicate just how low he means. "The helicopters fly even lower, so low, and aim their guns at the people and this terrifies everyone. How can humans live like this? Even our animals, the chickens and sheep are frightened by this. We don't know why they do this to us."
There is no way to discuss American reliance on air power in a war now largely being fought inside heavily populated cities without coming back to Fallujah. While an estimated 200,000 refugees from that city continue to live in refugee tent camps or crowded into houses (with up to 25 families crammed under a single roof), horrendous tales of what it was like to live under the bombs in the besieged city are only now beginning to emerge.

Ahmed Abdulla, a gaunt 21 year-old Fallujan, accompanied most of his family on their flight from the city, navigating the perilous neighborhoods nearest the cordon the American military had thrown around their besieged city. On November 8, he made it to Baghdad with his mother, his three sisters (aged 26, 20, and 18), and two younger brothers (10 and 12). His father, however, was not permitted to leave Fallujah by the U.S. military because he was of "fighting age." Ahmed was only allowed to exit the besieged city because his mother managed to convince an American soldier that, without him, his sisters and younger brothers would be at great risk traveling alone. Fortunately, the soldier understood her plea and let him through.

Ahmed's father told the family that he would instead stay to watch over their house. "The house is all we have, nothing else," commented Ahmed despondently. "We have no land, no livestock, nothing."

Recounting an odyssey of flight typical of those of many Fallujans, Ahmed told me his father had driven them in the family car across winding, desert roads out the eastern side of the city, considered the quietest area when it came to the fighting. They stopped the car a kilometer before the American checkpoints and walked the rest of the way, holding up white "flags" so the soldiers wouldn't mistake them for insurgents. "We walked with our hands up, expecting them to shoot at us anytime," said Ahmed softly, "It was so bad for us at that time and there were so many families trying to get out."

Those inhabitants still trapped in the city had only two hours each day to emerge and try to find food. Most of the time their electricity was cut and water ran in the faucets only intermittently. "Every night we told each other goodbye because we expected to die," he said. "Every night there was extremely heavy bombing from the jets. My house shook when bombs hit the city, and the women were crying all of the time." In his mind he still couldn't shake the buzzing sound of unmanned surveillance drone aircraft passing overhead, and the constant explosions of the "concussion bombs" (or so he called them) that he claimed the Americans fired just to keep people awake.

The sheer power of the bombs and the destruction left in their wake not only destroys homes, livelihoods, and neighborhoods, but also incentivizes mass refugee flows within the country from civilians fleeing war zones. Refugees are just accidents waiting to happen if the experiences in central African and Palestine have any merit. Dahar Jamil returns to the subject of the civilian cost of bombing in "An Increasingly Aerial Occupation". Hersh records the random and arbitrary nature of this terror:
The insurgency operates mainly in crowded urban areas, and Air Force warplanes rely on sophisticated, laser-guided bombs to avoid civilian casualties. These bombs home in on targets that must be “painted,” or illuminated, by laser beams directed by ground units. “The pilot doesn’t identify the target as seen in the pre-brief”—the instructions provided before takeoff—a former high-level intelligence official told me. “The guy with the laser is the targeteer. Not the pilot. Often you get a ‘hot-read’ ”—from a military unit on the ground—“and you drop your bombs with no communication with the guys on the ground. You don’t want to break radio silence. The people on the ground are calling in targets that the pilots can’t verify.” He added, “And we’re going to turn this process over to the Iraqis?”

The second senior military planner told me that there are essentially two types of targeting now being used in Iraq: a deliberate site-selection process that works out of air-operations centers in the region, and “adaptive targeting”—supportive bombing by prepositioned or loitering warplanes that are suddenly alerted to firefights or targets of opportunity by military units on the ground. “The bulk of what we do today is adaptive,” the officer said, “and it’s divorced from any operational air planning. Airpower can be used as a tool of internal political coercion, and my attitude is that I can’t imagine that we will give that power to the Iraqis.”

This military planner added that even today, with Americans doing the targeting, “there is no sense of an air campaign, or a strategic vision. We are just whacking targets—it’s a reversion to the Stone Age. There’s no operational art. That’s what happens when you give targeting to the Army—they hit what the local commander wants to hit.”

Protesters against the war advance three main arguments in their opposition to the war: (a) too many Americans are dying, (b) too many Iraqis are dying, or (c) we've created a worse mess with intervention that is exacerbated by continued American presence. Drawing down the level of American troops and relying more on Iraqi security forces solves the first problem at the expense of the second. America's reliance on airpower, in this war and many of the wars it has fought in the past, is not a form of strength and superiority when unaccompanied by land forces; rather, it is a tacit concession that our grand strategy has exceeded our political will. The civilians in the war zone suffer as a result.