To Bomb, Or Not To Bomb

One of the most famous lines penned by William Shakespeare is from Hamlet’s soliloquy, "To be, or not to be: that is the question." In Iraq, the question is whether to bomb or not to bomb. So far this year, the U.S. military is bombing more than last year (1,140 air strikes in the first nine months of this year compared with 229 in all of 2006, which does not include attacks by helicopter gunships) – more, in fact, than the last three years combined.

The argument in favor of increased bombing rests on the U.S. military’s comparative advantage in air power and weapons technology. In 1991, Operation Desert Storm ushered in the use of precision-guided munitions intended to destroy high-value targets (often deeply buried and hardened) with greater effect and less collateral damage than "dumb" bombs. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan saw global positioning system (GPS) technology mated to dumb bombs to make them "smart," capable of striking within meters of their intended targets. The result was that the venerable B-52 bomber (which has been in service in the U.S. Air Force since 1955) could provide close air support flying at tens of thousands of feet altitude (a mission previously conducted by ground attack and fighter aircraft operating at lower altitude). In Iraq, as guidance technology makes bombs more accurate, they are getting smaller. Instead of 1,000-pound or 2,000-pound bombs, 500-pound bombs are becoming the norm. New 250-pound bombs are on order, and the Hellfire missile (fired from helicopters or Predator drones) is only 100-pounds. According to Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Mueller, director of the Combined Air Operations Center in Iraq, the benefit of being able to use smaller bombs is that they can "take one building and not the whole block."

But according to Field Manual (FM) 3-24, the Army’s counterinsurgency (COIN) manual crafted by Gen. David Petraeus (who is the now the commander of all U.S. force in Iraq),

"Precision air attacks can be of enormous value in COIN operations; however, commanders exercise exceptional care when using air power in the strike role. Bombing, even with the most precise weapons, can cause unintended civilian casualties. Effective leaders weigh the benefits of every air strike against its risks. An air strike can cause collateral damage that turns people against the host-nation (HN) government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory. Even when justified under the law of war, bombings that result in civilian casualties can bring media coverage that works to the insurgents’ benefit. For example, some Palestinian militants have fired rockets or artillery from near a school or village to draw a retaliatory air strike that kills or wounds civilians. If that occurs, the insurgents display those killed and wounded to the media as victims of aggression."

Thus, the risk of the increased aerial bombardment is collateral damage and civilian casualties. In other words, bombing is a Catch-22. Insurgents or terrorists may be killed, but no matter how much care is taken to avoid noncombatant casualties so may innocent civilians. According to Wing Commander Andrew Brookes of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, "Even a 400-pound bomb has a wide area of blast, and you are quite likely to kill some civilians. Kill a wife, children, mother, or uncle, and people become so angry the terrorist cycle starts all over again."

To illustrate the potentially significant negative consequences of air attacks, it is worth noting that Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently called on the United States and NATO to cut back on their air strikes because of mounting civilian casualties (the number killed by air strikes has doubled and accounts for about half of total civilian deaths). According to Karzai,

"The United States and the Coalition Forces are not doing that deliberately. The United States is here to help the Afghan people. The Afghan people understand that mistakes are made. But five years on, six years on, definitely, very clearly, they cannot comprehend as to why there is still a need for air power."

"Cannot comprehend" is probably an understatement. In the Kapisa province a U.S. air strike in March (targeting an alleged local Taliban leader) killed four generations of a single family: an 85-year-old man, four women, and four children, ranging in age from five years to seven months. According to one villager, "We used to hate the Russians much more than Americans. But now when we see all this happening, I am telling you Russians behave much better than the Americans." And the opinion about the Americans of the 7-year old boy who survived the bombing is plain enough: "I hate them."

Such a phenomenon was evident in Iraq very early on. In November 2003, U.S. F-16 fighter jets dropped several 500-pound bombs in Fallujah. According to one resident in the area where the bombs exploded, "We used to have hopes of the Americans after they removed Saddam. We had liked them until this weekend. Why did they drop bombs near us and hurt and terrify my children like this?" Albert Einstein once said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Which is what seems to be the case of using air strikes in Iraq. Consider last week’s helicopter attack on a group of men planting roadside bombs north of Baghdad. A known member of a roadside bomb-making group was among five men killed, but five women and one child were also killed. According to the husband of one of the women who was killed, "They were peaceful people who had nothing to do with the resistance or gunmen."

According to FM 3-24:

"Successful counterinsurgents support or develop local institutions with legitimacy and the ability to provide basic services, economic opportunity, public order, and security. The political issues at stake are often rooted in culture, ideology, societal tensions, and injustice. As such, they defy nonviolent solutions. Military forces can compel obedience and secure areas; however, they cannot by themselves achieve the political settlement needed to resolve the situation. Successful COIN efforts include civilian agencies, U.S. military forces, and multinational forces. These efforts purposefully attack the basis for the insurgency rather than just its fighters."

In other words, winning over the civilian population is a key component of successful counterinsurgency. Yet increased use of air power is likely to have just the opposite effect. Which brings us back to the bard’s question: To bomb, or not to bomb? You do the math.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.