The War Above

Noah Shachtman notes a sharp spike in air strikes in Afghanistan:

>Last month, NATO attack planes dropped their bombs and fired their guns on 700 separate missions, according to U.S. Air Force statistics. That’s more than double the 257 attack sorties they flew in September 2009, and one of the highest single-month totals of the entire nine-year Afghan campaign...

There have been one-time spikes in air strikes before even under McChrystal, who famously curbed the attacks. And, of course, some of the added strikes can be explained by the fact that there are now more soldiers and Marines in harm’s way. Some portion of those ground forces will invariably call for air support. But since Petraeus took over the Afghan campaign, every month has seen an increase in airstrikes. And every every increase has been bigger than the previous month’s. Welcome to Afghanistan’s new, lethal air war.

Interesting, no? What matters militarily is whether we are taking out core Taliban/al Qaeda Jihadists without civilian casualties amounting to war crimes or blowback. I don't know the answer to that right now. I sure hope it's as surgical as these things can be.

But what this massive new air assault suggests to me - and I'm just speculating here - is that this is an attempt to generate as much leverage over the Taliban to secure as face-saving a political formula for withdrawal next year. If you think of Petraeus as the great counter-insurgency master, it doesn't make that much sense for him to reverse McChrystal's relative restraint on air strikes. But if you think of Petraeus as a political figure, helping presidents get out of military quagmires with minimal political damage - hence the "surge" myth - then it makes total sense. It may be that this kind of massive assault is the only thing to halt the Taliban's momentum, and thereby get them to the table without capitulation. No president wants to be seen to capitulate - which is why Vietnam lasted so long.

And, of course, I hope it works. If we cannot "win" in Afghanistan any more than we "won" in Iraq, then face-saving is not a dishonorable alternative. It just requires a certain amount of bullshit to describe with a straight face. Somehow, I suspect Washington is up to the task.