Recently, the American air force deployed one of its most powerful weapons against IS militants in Afghanistan. It has the greatest payload of any conventional bomb ever used in warfare. Some have argued in response to such a monumental display of power and destructive capability that we have only ourselves to blame for the anti-western mindset prevalent in suicide bombers and Islamist militants.
Peace in Afghanistan is a scarce commodity. A nation once beholden to a corrupt government with terrorist sympathies was eventually brought to its knees for harbouring the architects of 9/11. However, after the expulsion of the Taliban, there were attempts to rebuild and reform the government. Although many of the attempts to root out corruption were unsuccessful, the newly formed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan became obligated to cooperate with the United States of America in fighting violent Islamist groups.
Due to the ideological commitments of the Taliban, groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS have long existed in Afghanistan relatively unmolested by the people they seek to kill. Although Operation Enduring Freedom was successful in effecting regime change, this war, which proved to be the longest war of the United States to date, was unsuccessful in driving such groups from the area. With cooperation from Pakistan, the Taliban have remained a powerful force in the region and great swathes of land in Afghanistan are contested between the government and various Islamist factions. For example, the Helmand province, which is still contested today, has been under assault by Taliban forces since 2006 and, it could be conceivably argued, would have fallen back into the Taliban’s possession without US assistance. The nation is on a knife-edge between two possible futures, and one of the futures leaves generations of Afghans at the mercy of the Taliban.
The Taliban is a group which once subsumed Al Qaeda into its ministry of defence. In 2015, IS emerged in Afghanistan and now holds considerable areas of land. Although they do differ fundamentally in some aspects of their ideology, namely the legitimate targeting of insufficiently pious Muslims, the atrocities they are willing to commit should not be unclear to anybody. These people work tirelessly, day and night to wreak havoc of all kinds from 9/11 to an attempted chemical bombing in Jordan which, had it not been foiled by an astute storage facility owner and their intelligence agency, is estimated to have been on course to kill eighty thousand people, including the Prime Minister. These groups have one goal in mind: they are bent on establishing their Sharia as supreme, over the ashes of the modern world if necessary. Therefore, they can do no wrong; there is no collateral damage, there are only innocent people on their way to heaven, and those who deserved to go to hell anyway.
However, Western coalition forces are obsessed with avoiding collateral damage. From utterly humanitarian motivations to political motivations such as avoiding stoking the fires of anti-western sentiment by providing Islamist propaganda material, to merely saving political face, an avoidance of collateral damage is paramount. Fighting asymmetric warfare against insurgent groups such as these has radically changed modern understanding of how to use an air force. From defending civilians in Bosnia, where destructive air-power was scarcely used, to Libya, with a distinct focus on intelligence gathering resulting in a record low for civilian casualties, Western air forces have been forced to acknowledge that dropping bombs is not always the answer.
However, this is not the same as saying it never is. Kinetic air-support, that is to say, bombing campaigns have proved instrumental in pushing back against ISIS in both Syria and supporting both the country’s government and the Kurdish forces in Iraq. Sometimes hitting targets is of critical importance. It has been said that in the terrorist business, contacts are the most powerful commodity – more useful than guns, money and training. Two men, Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, were responsible for inspiring, coordinating and funding many of the most successful terrorist attacks in the last 50 years. Typically, intelligence agencies and the military provide the most reliable information about who is a threat and why. When the military tells our leaders that the base in question is a critically important target, our leaders should be inclined to believe them.
It is certainly true that a modern air force recognises that its only function is not to drop bombs and it is obviously true that dropping bombs badly can do more harm than good. But there are people in the world who are devoting every available moment to planning atrocities. Having seen what they do with human life when they get their hands on it, and having seen how hard it is for many of us to believe they mean what they say, I have no difficulty believing that the 96 fighters killed were such people. I have no difficulty believing that IS tunnels, outside government controlled areas in the Nangarhar province, were a good target considering no civilians seem to have been hit. Since 2015, coalition forces have killed up to 3000 people, with fewer than 200 of these being civilian casualties. IS has killed more than 400 civilians in 2016 alone mostly in suicide attacks.
Taliban forces killed over 3000 police officers trying to take Helmand province. Yes, bombs must be dropped responsibly and every single civilian life lost is a terrible loss, but it cannot be argued that the need for those bombs is the fault of the US. Tactically eroding the capabilities of terrorist organisations to destroy life can never be a justification for seriously planning to kill civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq or Paris, nor can it be avoided that there are none more irresponsible in their use of force, bombs and bullets than those that we are trying to kill.