WASHINGTON - Daily airstrikes by U.S. and allied fighter-bombers in Afghanistan have almost doubled since last summer, according to U.S. Air Force data, a trend that reflects increased insurgent attacks but also raises concerns about civilian casualties.
The growing reliance on airstrikes by U.S. commanders in Afghanistan appears to mark a turn in the course of the war.
Responding to requests from ground commanders, allied aircraft over the past week have pummeled enemy ground targets an average of 68 times a day across Afghanistan, dropping 500- and 2,000-pound guided bombs and strafing enemy forces with cannon fire, according to Air Force daily strike reports.
A year ago, the Air Force was recording about 35 airstrikes per day in Afghanistan.
Although the Air Force takes what it says are exhaustive measures to avoid accidental deaths, civilian casualties from airstrikes have spiked twice this year, from none in January to 23 in March to 60 so far this month, according to new, unpublished data from Human Rights Watch researcher Marc Garlasco, a former targeting chief for the Pentagon's Joint Staff.
Taliban-led insurgents are attacking in significant numbers and staying to fight rather than engaging in traditional hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, according to U.S. commanders.
In several recent incidents, U.S. and allied troops prevailed in pitched battles only after fighter-bombers showed up to blast the insurgents.
The growing role of air power suggests that the war will require more than the additional troops recommended by President Bush and both presidential candidates. It might require more manned and unmanned aircraft from an already overstretched Air Force and Navy.
And greater use of air power would likely result in more civilian casualties, in a conflict in which winning local loyalty is considered the key to success.
Last fall, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, responding to the rising civilian death toll from airstrikes, publicly demanded that the United States find an alternative. But airstrikes only increased.
Allied commanders are still investigating a July 6 airstrike that the Afghan government says killed 47 civilians on their way to a wedding.
"We deeply regret any incident where civilians are harmed," said Royal Navy Capt. Mike Finney, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan.
But the Air Force says it is only responding to the intensity of fighting on the ground.
"Let's face it, the enemy is more emboldened," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Douglas L. Raaberg, deputy commander of air operations in the region. Raaberg is a B-1 bomber pilot who has flown strike missions over Afghanistan as recently as last week.
"The Taliban, when they have an opportunity to take a stand, they are doing that," he said in a telephone interview from the region.
Coalition aircraft have doubled the number of hours they spend each day on airborne "armed overwatch" of U.S. and allied convoys and other operations, he said. He acknowledged that strike missions also have doubled as ground commanders increasingly request air support.
To meet the demand, allied air crews are flying more sorties each day, and more U.S. aircraft are on station with the recent diversion of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln from Iraq operations to supporting operations in Afghanistan.
"We are shifting assets as needed to make sure we don't leave [ground forces] uncovered," Raaberg said.
But the Air Force has to scramble to meet unexpected demand.
A Taliban attack July 13, for example, nearly overran a remote U.S. and Afghan outpost near the Pakistani border. Insurgents held the upper hand in combat until an Air Force B-1 bomber flew in to drop 2,000-pound bombs, an unmanned Predator fired a Hellfire missile and other strike aircraft dropped bombs and strafed the enemy with cannon. The insurgents retreated, leaving nine American soldiers dead.
"The only reason they weren't completely overrun was air power, and that's the first time that has happened" in the Afghan war, said John McCreary, who retired in 2006 as a senior intelligence analyst for the Pentagon's Joint Staff.
"Coalition ground forces are not winning every battle, but they are winning every battle where they have air support," said McCreary, who follows Afghanistan closely and still assembles a daily open-source intelligence report.
On July 20, Raaberg was piloting a B-1 bomber over Afghanistan when he was redirected to attack Taliban forces gathering for an assault on a U.S. forward operating base in Kunar province, in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan.
"They started attacking within half an hour of when I got there," Raaberg recalled. He said U.S. artillery fired at the enemy, followed by airstrikes, followed by more artillery and more airstrikes, "until we ran out of bombs."
Defeating such Taliban attacks, he said, is "not so much air [power] saving the day, it's air combined with ground forces combined with our coalition partners. We're trying to use everything."
Analysts who have studied casualty patterns in Afghanistan say that the vast majority are caused, deliberately or not, by the Taliban and other insurgents.
According to Human Rights Watch, a nonpartisan international research organization, 929 Afghan civilians were killed in the fighting in 2006. Of those, 699 were killed by the Taliban and 230 by U.S. or coalition forces, including 116 by airstrikes.
In 2007, 1,633 Afghan civilians died in the fighting, with 950 killed by the Taliban and 434 by U.S. and coalition forces, according to data provided by Garlasco. The rest died under unclear or unknown circumstances, he said.
But while the number killed by U.S. or coalition ground forces stayed about the same, those killed by airstrikes more than doubled, to 321.
A key reason for the increase is that the Taliban are "shielding" their fighters among Afghanistan's civilian population, Garlasco said.
"They actually go into peoples' homes, force them to stay there during a battle, force them to build defensive trenches for them - these are true Geneva Conventions violations," Garlasco said.
Raaberg said the Air Force will not attack insurgents shielding themselves among civilians "and the enemy knows that."
But Garlasco said the Air Force has not taken as much care with its quick-reaction airstrike missions as it has with those planned in detail and reviewed by intelligence analysts and lawyers at the U.S. regional air operations headquarters in Qatar.
"In their planned airstrikes, they have virtually eliminated the danger of civilian casualties," Garlasco said. "It is in the unplanned airstrikes that you're seeing almost all of the civilian casualties."
Such unplanned missions often involve urgent calls to support U.S. and allied troops who unexpectedly engage in battle. Or an unmanned surveillance plane might find a group of people mistakenly identified by targeters as insurgents.
Raaberg said that for unplanned missions - such as the one in which he participated July 20 - the air command dispatches not just strike aircraft but intelligence and command aircraft, all in close coordination with ground commanders and tactical air controllers.
"It's a painstaking effort," he said. If insurgents are mixed in with civilians, "we will wait them out if we can" or ask the ground commander to flush them out.
But U.S. and allied troops in trouble take precedence.
"My hat's off to the ones on the ground," Raaberg said.
"There's nothing more uncomfortable than to hear on the radio mortars and grenades going off. You've got to go help them."