At the risk of being mocked for my naivete, let me say that I was under the impression that U.S. air strikes in Iraq had dwindled to only very occasional, discreet sorties months if not years ago. Fighting an insurgency with air strikes is like performing heart surgery with a chain saw. Apparently, though, that's exactly what we are doing.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, hinted at ongoing air strikes this week when he told a group of military reporters that in a war with North Korea the United States would be hampered by the fact that so many guidance and intelligence assets are in use in the Middle East. As reported by the LA Times:
Pace said a conflict with North Korea, which both he and President Bush have said is highly unlikely, would rely heavily on the Navy and Air Force because of the significant deployment of land forces in Iraq. In addition, such an attack would not be "as clean as we would like," he said, because guidance systems used to aim bombs were in use in the Middle East.
"You wouldn't have the precision in combat going to a second theater of war that you would if you were only going to the first theater of war," Pace told a group of military reporters. "You end up dropping more bombs potentially to get the job done, and it would mean more brute force."
Although Pace did not name specific guidance and intelligence systems, Air Force officers have said they do not have surveillance aircraft such as Global Hawk and Predator reconnaissance drones available for East Asia because of their heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unmanned aircraft are used to spy on enemy territory.
Such recon assets are not used solely for air strikes; they support ground forces, too. But the report last week in the Lancet on the estimated number of Iraqi casualties (an astonishing 655,000 souls) also suggests ongoing aerial bombardment. Crooked Timber crunches the numbers (h/t to Ygelsias):
One number that is striking, but hasnât attracted a lot of attention is the estimated death rate from air strikes, 13 per cent of the total or between 50,000 and 100,000 people. Around half the estimated deaths in the last year of the survey, from June 2005 to June 2006. Thatâs at least 25,000 deaths, or more than 70 per day.
Yet reports of such deaths are very rare. If you relied on media reports you could easily conclude that total deaths from air strikes would only be a few thousand for the entire war. . . .
The best source turns out to be the US Air Force Command itself. For October and November 2005, the US Air Force recorded 120 or more air strikes, and this number was on an increasing trend. Most of the strikes appear to be in or near urban areas, and the recorded examples include Hellfire missiles fired by Predators, an F-16 firing a thousand 20mm cannon rounds and an F-15 reported to have fired three GBU-38s, the new satellite-guided 500-pound bomb designed for support of ground troops in close combat. . . .
This sort of reliance on air strikes to combat the insurgency (which is becoming supplanted by sectarian violence, which our forces may or may not be in a position to distinguish) is a classic example of tactics divorced from strategy.
My own sense for some time has been that our inability to secure the peace--largely the result of our inadequate force size--has been the biggest obstacle to a political solution in Iraq. Obviously, many other factors come into play, and even achieving security, especially at this late date, does not ensure that a political solution is achieved. But persistent violence, and protecting oneself from it, has a way of trumping all other consideration for a civilian populace. If what we are doing in Iraq militarily still involves heavy use of air strikes, then we are a major source and cause of that violence to an even greater extent than I had imagined, and in a random and indiscriminate way which undermines anything we try to accomplish in Iraq politically.