In its military campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is directing warplanes to drop relatively few bombs on Taliban front-line positions north of Kabul. At this pace, the U.S. may not be able to help resistance forces seize the capital, Kabul, and other major cities before the onset of winter and the Muslim holy period of Ramadan—both begin next month.
If the resistance fails to achieve many of its war aims before that time, Al Qaeda likely will survive the winter relatively intact—and millions of innocent Afghans will be at increasing risk of starving because an ongoing civil war and weather will impede food delivery throughout much of the country. The nature of the current bombing plan has a certain logic: Washington wants to reassure the Northern Alliance and other resistance forces that it supports them, but it also is holding back because no acceptable alternative Afghan government is ready to assume power.
This is a delicate balancing act. Unfortunately, it is not clear that the U.S. has calibrated its approach properly.
As in the Gulf War of 1991 and again in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s war against Serbia in 1999, even a full-fledged air campaign takes time to wear down dug-in enemy forces. A good rule of thumb is that modern air power is doing well if it reduces enemy forces by 1% a day.
Since Taliban forces outnumber the Afghan resistance by at least 2 to 1, it could take a sustained U.S. air assault a month or more to even out the battlefield balance.
However, those serious attacks have not really even begun. They should, and soon.
After 40 days and nights of bombing during the Gulf War, much of it against front-line Iraqi units, coalition air power destroyed perhaps one-third of Iraq’s deployed forces.
Likewise, in NATO’s 1999 Operation Allied Force against Serbia, 77 days of bombing destroyed no more than 30% to 40% of Serbia’s heavy weaponry in Kosovo. That pace made for a loss rate of about half a percent a day.
The technology was somewhat better in 1999 than in 1991, but the difficulties of operating in complex terrain imposed stark limits on air power’s effectiveness.
In fact, some observers still maintain that Serbian losses were only a fraction of what NATO claimed.
Of course, such numerical rules of thumb vary from conflict to conflict. They also cannot be used by themselves to determine broad military strategy.
Yet past military performance should be sobering for those who think the U.S. can adjust the pressure against Taliban forces in the same way that one sets the thermostat in a home, and produce results just as quickly.
There may be a few days left to refrain from heavy bombing of Taliban positions and to focus on forging a new Afghan government. However, there is not much more time than that, especially in light of a severe need to deliver food to the Afghan people.