Airpower in Afghanistan 2005-10: The Air Commanders' Perspectives

  • Published

Airpower in Afghanistan 2005–10: The Air Commanders' Perspectives, edited by Dag Henriksen. Air University Press, 2014, 335 pp.

Airpower in Afghanistan is not a collection of "there I was at 30,000 feet" war stories; nor is it Three Cups of Tea, delving into the culture that makes Afghanistan a unique and challenging place to conduct business. The real strength of the book is revealed in its subtitle, The Air Commander's Perspectives. The contributors to this work are the two- and three-star generals who directed the airpower component for both the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) combined air operations center (CAOC) in Al Udeid, Qatar, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul.

As compiler and editor Dag Henriksen explains in his introduction, he did not set out to discover the "whys and hows" behind the war in Afghanistan but rather to "bring forward the larger lessons, challenges, and dynamics related to the use of airpower" in that war and "the broader challenges of alliance/coalition warfare" (p. xxiii-xxiv). He correctly observes that Airmen are typically much better at doing what they do at the tactical level than they are at understanding why they do it from a strategic perspective. Given the complex and sometimes divergent nature of such a compilation as this, it is essential the reader not skip over Henriksen's detailed introduction in which he explains his choice of time frame, his inclusion of certain chapters, and the overall nature and employment of airpower in the land-centric struggle in Afghanistan. Henriksen, a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) and lecturer and head of the airpower and technology department at its academy in Trondheim, holds a PhD in military studies from the University of Glasgow (UK) and is a graduate of the RNoAF Academy and the Norwegian Defence Command and Staff College in Oslo. He served on coalition air staffs during NATO operations in both the Balkans and Afghanistan. Henriksen compiled this book as an exchange officer at the US Air Force Research Institute, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.

Much of the "conflict" in Afghanistan centered on the differing objectives and procedures of NATO/ISAF and USCENTCOM. The former involved more than 40 different nations that contributed varying assets "usually with many strings attached" and often isolated themselves in provincial reconstruction teams (PRT), where they performed independently, absent any concern for the long-term strategic mission of ISAF. When coalition members are so independent and free to withdraw, command and control and mission planning become challenges. Meanwhile, USCENTCOM was a ground-centric command attempting to control an instrument of power it did not fully understand--airpower.

If nine general officers from four NATO nations on both sides of the Atlantic can agree on anything, it would be that airpower in the ground-centric war in Afghanistan was an afterthought in planning yet was expected to be available without fail when needed--the proverbial "911 call." As Lt Gen Frederik "Freek" Meulman observed, "Discussing airpower as a unilateral military tool gives little meaning. It is paramount that the use of airpower" like every military tool "be viewed in relation to all other means of power" (p. 70). He tells of a US two-star Airman dispatched to ISAF HQ who was quite literally not given "a seat at the table" but was instead required to stand during morning briefings.

The most dramatic example of disconnect in air-land coordination occurred in the infamous friendly fire incident during Operation Medusa in 2006. For that reason, Henriksen devotes an entire chapter to the episode, written by Canadian Forces retired major general Charles S. "Duff" Sullivan, copresident of the investigation board convened by USCENTAF. Several of the contributors lament the failure to apply lessons learned from Operation Anaconda (2002) to Operation Medusa.

Many of the tensions between NATO/ISAF and USCENTCOM came from their different primary objectives. The former organization focused, as its name implies, on preparing the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army to assume security responsibilities for their country; whereas, the latter was engaged in a counterterrorism/counterinsurgency (COIN) undertaking, Operation Enduring Freedom. Absent a clear, overarching strategy, ISAF kept reinventing itself. The difference in missions meant it saw itself as a "strategic-level function. . . . It did not see itself as an operational war-fighting command," according to Lt Gen William L. Holland, USAF, retired (p. 59). These numerous ISAF reorganizations with their requisite accompaniment of alphabet soup could have been far easier to follow given an occasional organization chart--one of the few shortcomings of the book. General Meulman also notes the lack of a comprehensive ISAF strategy: "It is easy to state that one wants security, stability, development, and good governance, but that is not a strategy" (p. 75).

Running concurrently with the "Internal Strife and Friction," which defined ISAF, was the lack of coordination between air and ground forces. Maj Gen Jaap Willemse, Royal Netherlands Air Force, retired, noted in the opening chapter, "we did not have enough good, qualitative, overarching discussions between ground and air officers in terms of how we could use our collective resources to achieve better overall results" (p. 15). He also cites the high turnover rate due to short tours of duty as a contributing factor to poor air-land integration. His counterpart at the CAOC, Lt Gen Allen Peck, USAF, retired, noted the need to learn from our (mis)adventures in Afghanistan. "I would not be surprised if 30 years from now people will say, 'Oh, we have neglected the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan.'" One of those lessons is "to posture for future conflicts we will need to put more investment in strategically vital air, naval, and special operations forces (SOF) and let domestic surrogates fight the ground war in their own countries" (pp. 20-21). Both Willemse, as ISAF deputy commander for air in Kabul, and Peck, as deputy combined force air component commander in Al Udeid, make the case for their respective commands to control airpower over Afghanistan--an issue that remains unresolved.

Recognizing and accepting the shift to a COIN mission posed challenges to both USCENTCOM and ISAF. Indeed, the latter proved far more conversant in the intricacies of the art. The non-US generals focused on COIN/nation-building in their respective chapters, while the USAF generals dealt primarily with counterterrorism/air operations. For example, contrast retired Royal Netherlands Air Force lieutenant general Jouke Eikelboom's chapter, "Moving toward Counterinsurgency" (pp. 123-34), with that of Maj Gen Douglas Raaberg, USAF, retired, "The Shift from Iraq to Afghanistan" (pp 136-56).

In terms of developing a coherent and effective COIN strategy, the contributors were almost unanimous that Gen David McKiernan, US Army, was the true architect of the plan rather than his more highly touted successors, US Army generals Stanley McChrystal and David Patraeus. Major General Sullivan clearly considered the replacement of McKiernan by McChrystal an act of political expediency by the administration in Washington, asserting that "tragically, politics trumped military vision and brilliance" (p. 226).

In a comprehensive and analytic epilogue, Henriksen summarizes the factors identified by the various air commanders as contributing to the dearth of operational cohesion. His list includes lack of a unified strategy, unilateral national emphasis on the PRT construct, the division of Afghanistan into regional commands with significant autonomy and lead nations in charge, a loosely defined concept (counterinsurgency) that had no universal acceptance, significant limitations in competence within ISAF HQ involving all the new concepts governing the approach to this war (e.g., counterinsurgency, effects-based approach to operations, and comprehensive approach), lack of resources, and lack of public/political attention during years of televised havoc in Iraq (p. 268).

Despite all the hand-wringing from Airmen over being pushed out of the planning process, Henriksen remarks that "I have yet to hear a strong and influential voice within the airpower community explaining how airpower could have been better utilized to assist the counterinsurgency effort" (p. 278). Clearly, work remains to be done.

While the US military has long been lambasted, and rightfully so, for always "fighting the last war," it is evident the United States will be facing more counterterrorism and COIN operations such as Afghanistan for decades to come. Therefore, it is essential that anyone involved in designing and/or implementing US national security strategy learn and understand the lessons outlined in this unique and important book. What better way to attain the essence of these lessons learned than through the eyes of the general officers who ran the air segment of the war and are, predominantly, now retired and free to tell it like it was?

CAPT Jerry L. Gantt, USNR, Retired
Former Content Editor,Strategic Studies Quarterly
Doctoral Candidate in Public Policy, Auburn University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."