When thousands of additional US soldiers are deployed to Afghanistan as part of Donald Trump’s expansion of America’s longest war, many of them will experience the conflict at a distance from fighters’ jets and helicopters.
The US has stepped up its use of airstrikes in Afghanistan and is pouring vast resources into strengthening Afghan airpower. But while airstrikes may be effective in killing insurgents, increasing their use also leads to more civilian deaths.
Last week at least 26 civilians were killed in two separate airstrikes. Near Herat, Afghan warplanes killed at least 13 civilians. A day later, what appears to have been a Nato airstrike killed at least 11 civilians in Logar, east of the capital, Kabul.
Even before then, 2017 had been shaping up to be the deadliest year on record for Afghan civilians since the 2001 US-led invasion. The rate of casualties from airstrikes is on par with 2011, during the Obama troop surge. In the first six months of 2017, airstrikes killed 95 civilians and injured 137.
Such deaths risk undermining public faith in the national air force, which is seen as representing a vital step towards self-reliance for the Afghan security forces, experts say.
For now, though, airpower is the Kabul government’s lifeline. Half a dozen provincial capitals are verging on collapse, and some would probably have fallen were it not for American air support.
One of them, Farah, in the western part of the country, was under siege for three weeks last year by Taliban fighters, probably supported by Iranian commandos, until American planes were called in. Many of the insurgents fled north to Shindand, in Herat province, a Taliban stronghold.
This is where Afghan government forces struck last week. But by the time their bombs dropped, the Taliban had already fled, local residents told the Guardian. Instead, the planes killed 18 civilians, said a witness who asked for anonymity. The district governor put the number at 13.
“There were no men among the victims. All were women and children. We were collecting body parts up until 11pm. No one from the Taliban was even wounded,” the governor said.
Azim Kabarzani, a provincial council member, said: “Kabul always persecuted Shindand. But the problem of Shindand can’t be solved with raids or military operations. The Americans and the government must know that civilians also live in the region.”
Since 2014, as the Afghans have assumed greater responsibility for the fighting, the Taliban have gained ground, and they now control, influence or contest 40% of Afghanistan’s territory, according to Sigar, a US congressional watchdog.
In the meantime, use of airpower has become trickier, as the Taliban increasingly fight from populated villages. On Wednesday in Dasht e Barai, in Logar province, at least 11 civilians were killed in what local officials said was a Nato airstrike targeting Taliban fighters holed up in a civilian home.
“The ordinary people held up the holy book and said to the Taliban, for the sake of the Qur’an, leave our houses. But the Taliban refused, and finally the airstrike happened,” said Mohammed Halim Fidai, the provincial governor.
The US military said it was aware of an incident with potential civilian casualties and it was investigating.
Barack Obama loosened US rules of engagement in 2014. Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said liberal use of airpower looked different in the hands of Donald Trump, who he said had already indicated that he sees winning the war is a matter of raw power, not diplomacy.
“This administration has far fewer qualms about civilian casualties and is more willing to remove the gloves that were placed on it,” Joshi said. “I don’t really trust this administration to go about strengthening airpower in a responsible way.”
Errant airstrikes were a main source of contention between the former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Obama, and could strain relations again, said Joshi.
“Military escalation as a whole, including airpower, including special forces operations, are going to create opportunities for new tension between Kabul and Washington. And that is going to be difficult to resolve with an administration that’s a little tone deaf when dealing with allies,” he said.
“The White House may not fully understand the wedge that can be driven between it and Kabul by the drip-drip of civilian casualties.”
While the Taliban are responsible for two-thirds of civilian casualties, public protests mount primarily against government or foreign forces. For the moment, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, seems wholeheartedly wedded to Trump’s strategy, but he could come under public pressure to reconsider.
“If civilian casualties continue rising, sooner or later at least sections of the population will not be happy about the government not being as vocal as Karzai,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Reaching the latest set goal of training 12,000 Afghan airmen, while also catching up with a growing insurgency, has proven difficult, and a revised timeline aims for completion in 2023.
The bulk of the roughly 4,000 additional US troops on their way to Afghanistan will come from the 82nd Airborne Division and an airborne brigade from the 25th Infantry Division, according to a report in the Washington Post. The US will also beef up air support in form of additional F-16 fighter jets, A-10 ground attack aircraft and B-52 bombers.
Even with the Afghans improving, the US still flies more than 70% of combat missions. The rate of US airstrikes in Afghanistan is at its highest since 2014.
Afghan pilots seem more trigger-happy than their American mentors. Last year Afghan pilots conducted 800 airstrikes on 1,992 combat missions, and US pilots 615 strikes on 5,162 missions, attack rates of 40% and 12% respectively, according to the Military Times.
However, for Afghan civilians, the distinction between who is bombing them from the sky, may not matter.
“Do the Afghans prefer to be killed by their own or by the Americans? Maybe it doesn’t make a big difference,” said Ruttig. Either way, he said, the high casualty rate “don’t bode well for the future.”