It was a war we thought we’d won. But after eight years of escalating violence, the Afghanistan conflict has morphed into something perhaps unwinnable. U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda, a goal we’ve largely achieved. But in years of occupation, Washington has apparently conflated counter-terrorism with nation-building. Now the U.S., NATO and their allies are struggling to destroy a deeply-rooted insurgency in country with a corrupt, ineffective government, poor infrastructure and few prospects for everyday people, but to fight. David Axe visits U.S. forces to see for himself.
by DAVID AXE
General Stan McChrystal, top U.S. officer in Afghanistan, is serious about reducing civilian casualties. His new rules of engagement rein in air- and artillery strikes. But cannons are still going to fire. Jets are still going to bomb. They are, after all, U.S.-led forces’ biggest advantage over the cash-strapped, lightly-armed Taliban.
So the F-15E crews from North Carolina’s 335th Fighter Squadron, deployed to Bagram air base near Kabul, are learning to “bomb nice.” Captain Jerimy Mclellan, a 335th pilot, points out the ordnance hanging under F-15E 89-0487, including 500-pound laser-guided bombs, 500-pound GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions and one monster 2,000-pound JDAM. The bird also carries its 20-millimeter cannon, a Sniper targeting pod and an AMRAAM air-to-air missile — just in case.
McClellan touches a fuse attached to the smaller JDAMS. This, he says, is one key to a gentler air-strike. The fuse can be programmed to explode the bomb after it has hit the ground and presumably buried itself under feet of earth. The muffled blast should kill the targets, without injuring surrounding bystanders. At least that’s the theory.
The cannon is another way to reduce civilian casualties, since it’s more precise and doesn’t go boom. But the F-15E’s gun was meant for dogfighting: it’s canted upward by several degrees for air-to-air shooting. To hit ground targets, you’ve really got to get down low and shove the jet’s nose in the earth. It’s harrowing work, and it’s a major reason why F-15E crews still need their gravity-fighting G-suits. There’s little prospect of blacking out in a high-G dogfight against the Taliban air force, but strafing runs are also sufficiently G-intensive to cause blackouts. And down that low, you’d never survive if you blanked. A pilot from an F-16 squadron also located at Bagram crashed and died while strafing during his pre-deployment training.
It’s been a typical busy week for the 335th. The squadron sent six jets to support U.S. Army soldiers as the Taliban over-ran a Forward Operating Base in Kamdesh on Saturday, killing eight Americans and at least two Afghan troops. For several days, the 335th maintained air patrols over the FOB, now back in U.S. hands. On one bomb hanging under an F-15E on Wednesday, someone scrawled a message to the Taliban: an outline of Texas and the words, “You’re welcome.”
(Photo: David Axe)