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The (Air) Power of Withdrawal | The Nation

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The (Air) Power of Withdrawal

In a recent inside-the-fold round-up of the previous day's mayhem in Iraq, David S. Cloud, writing for my hometown paper, devoted 729 words to an account of American casualties from IEDs ("Six American soldiers and their interpreter were killed by a roadside bomb in western Baghdad..."), Iraqi Army, police, insurgent, and civilian casualties, and various bombers -- all of whom were on the ground: suicide bombers, car bombers, truck bombers. Nine words in the report were devoted to the American air war: "American troops killed eight suspected insurgents on Sunday, the military said -- six in an airstrike near Garma, in Anbar Province, and two southwest of Baghdad." We have no further information on that air strike in Garma; no idea what kind of aircraft struck, or with what weaponry, or how those in the air were so certain that those dead on the ground were "suspected insurgents," or who exactly suspected them of being insurgents. The equivalent Washington Post round-up did not even mention that the operation involved an air strike.

This has been fairly typical of the last few years of minimalist to nonexistent mainstream media coverage of the air war in Iraq, based almost singularly on similarly minimalist military press handouts or statements. We do, however, know something about an air strike, also "in the Garma area," last December in which the U.S. military announced that it had "destroyed a foreign fighter safe house in a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, killing five insurgents, two women and a child." Local residents later claimed to an Iraqi journalist that the strike had actually "killed nine members of the same family -- three women, three girls and three boys -- and wounding a man." Air power, for all its "precision," remains a remarkably indiscriminate form of warfare, though headlines like this one from the BBC, are seldom seen here: "US attack ‘kills Iraqi children.'"

We also know from a recent report that the ill-covered operations of the U.S. Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan have nonetheless significantly degraded American equipment, in the air as on the ground. According to the Air Combat Command's Gen. Ronald Keys, U.S. planes and helicopters are wearing down (and out) from conducting so many missions "in harsh environments." For instance, the general tell us that the A-10 -- a plane used regularly because "its cannon is particularly effective in strafing" -- is increasingly likely to have "cracked wings."

Keep in mind that, however poorly covered these last years, air power has long been the American way of war. After all, it was no mistake that the Iraq war began with a pure show of air power meant to "shock and awe" not just Iraqis but the world. And yet, in recent years in Iraq, the only "bombers" we hear about are of the suicide car or truck variety. This is strange indeed, because nothing should have stopped American journalists from visiting our air bases in the region, from spending time with pilots, or from simply looking up at the evidently crowded skies over their hotels.

The only good mainstream report on American air power in Iraq in this period has been Seymour Hersh's New Yorker piece, "Up in the Air," in December 2005 -- significantly enough, by a journalist who had never set foot in Iraq. He reminded us then of something forgotten for several decades -- that President Richard Nixon's "Vietnamization" plan to withdraw all American "ground troops" (but not tens of thousands of U.S. advisors) from South Vietnam also involved a massive ratcheting upward of the American air war. Hersh reported that, in late 2005, George W. Bush's Iraqification formula ("Our strategy is straightforward: As Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down…") was but a Vietnamization plan in sheep's clothing. As he wrote at the time: "A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President's public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units."

In recent months, as the revived Taliban has surged in Afghanistan and U.S. as well as NATO troops have proven in short supply, this is just what has happened. Air power has increasingly been called upon; civilian casualties have been spiking; and Afghans have been growing ever more upset and oppositional. Iraq will undoubtedly be next. There is, as Nick Turse indicates below, already evidence that the use of air power is "surging" in that country.

Here, then, is a post-surge formula to keep in mind: "Withdrawal" equals an increase in air power (as long as the commitment to withdraw isn't a total one). This is no less true of the "withdrawal" plans of the major Democratic presidential candidates and the Democratic congressional mainstream as it is of any administration planning for future draw-downs. All of these plans are largely confined to withdrawing or redeploying American "combat brigades," which add up to only something like half of all American forces in Iraq. None of this will necessarily lessen the American war there. As Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Hersh, it may only "change the mix of the forces doing the fighting." A partial withdrawal is actually likely, at least for a time, to increase the destructive brutality of the war on the American side.

Since 2004, my website, Tomdispatch.com, has, from a distance, been following as carefully as possible what can be known about the American air war in Iraq (and Afghanistan). Tomdispatch regular Nick Turse has been heroically on the job of late. His latest piece (which also appears in abbreviated form in the latest issue of the Nation Magazine) is, I believe, the best assessment of the air war that can, at present, be found in our media world.

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