November 20, 2005

War Sabotage Report

The No-Show Air War in Afghanistan

An F/A-18C Hornet prepares for takeoff
U.S. Dept. of Defense
Barely Allowed to Fly: An F/A-18C Hornet on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, Oct. 7, 2001.
The bizarre ability of the primitive, poorly-armed Taliban regime to survive American attacks for several weeks in the 2001 war wasn’t easy. It required the most incredible restraint of U.S. air power ever seen in history, more severe than the restrictions in the earlier Korean and Vietnam wars.

Afghanistan, of course, had no real air force to speak of. Thus America’s air superiority, with its unrestrained ability to strike at will at enemy positions, gave it the decisive ability to win the war quickly, a prospect that terrified the Communist powers backing the Taliban. The occupation regimes of Russia, mainland China, North Korea and Egypt all publicly called for ending the air strikes barely days after they had begun.1 “This is very important to us,” emphasized Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.2

Home-grown collaborators joined the chorus. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, denounced American bombing efforts when speaking before the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, a Fabian-Socialist front organization, during the third week of fighting.3

With such voices providing cover, the Bush Administration quietly interfered with military strategy and kept bombings to unprecedentedly low levels. For much of the war, the underwhelming use of air power consisted of one or two planes dropping a small handful of bombs against no particular target, or just a couple of bombs, or just one bomb, or sometimes circling for a few minutes over Taliban forces before flying back, without having dropped any payload at all.4 Later in the war, as rising American impatience forced the Administration to act, B-52 airplanes were allowed to drop dozens of bombs at a time — but only against bare hillsides, once a day, on a schedule so monotonously predictable it easily allowed enemy forces to avoid damage.5 “Bombing raids… usually last less than an hour and have occurred only twice a day, at most. That leaves the Taliban troops a lot of time to regroup,” noted one news report.6

The embarrassing U.S. attacks became the object of astonishment and jokes amongst Afghans familiar with real war. “About 40 Russian jets used to come and bomb us at once… This fighting seems funny to us,” observed one Afghan fighter.7

Another was more blunt after watching a typically brief, limited bombing run. “The strikes ended in minutes, leaving him to wonder what the point was. ‘This is nothing,’ he said through an interpreter. ‘… We have seen so much fighting, we can’t compare these [American] attacks with that. This is too easy.’”8

“If the Americans want to do something here,” commented a Northern Alliance officer dryly, “they need to bomb in a way that shows they are a great power.”9

From the very start of the Afghan war, the Bush Administration looked for any opportunity to reduce or halt bombings. Practically anything served as an excuse: a supposed lack of targets,10 opportunities to negotiate with the Taliban,11 Fridays (the Muslim prayer day).12 For a time, the administration even floated the idea of stopping the air strikes for the entire month of Ramadan (a Muslim period of fasting).13

When bombing couldn’t be stopped entirely, the targets were severely limited in number and carefully selected, often including empty bases supposedly to “smoke out” Usama bin Laden.14 Strategically important targets, “including electrical power systems, roads and industry — ordinarily the primary targets in a war,” were declared off limits,15 and the Taliban’s front-line positions were largely avoided altogether.16

Pilots already in flight had to request permission from ground authorities for every single new target spotted. “A radio response from a network spanning Saudi Arabia, Florida and Washington, D.C., [could] come back in five minutes, or [could] take hours,” according to pilot testimony.17

Incredibly, those decisions were supervised by lawyers in accordance with arbitrary international rules or out of concern over possible negative effects on America’s political image.18 Permission was often denied, with disastrous effects: “… On the first night of bombing raids in Afghanistan, a CIA plane had the leader of the Taliban in its sights but was refused permission to fire.”

The decision to spare Mohammed Omar and his military caravan was made by such lawyers.19


1. Wright, R. & Chen, E., “China, Russia urge quick end to strikes,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 21, 2001, p. A3; AP, “North Korea says it will sign anti-terror treaty,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 4, 2001, p. A20; Robbins, C.A., LeVine, S., & Cullison, A., “Cold calculations,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 26, 2001, p. A1, A6.

2. Robbins, et al., Op cit.

3. Anderson, N., “Biden musings trigger GOP attack,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 25, 2001, p. A11.

4. Gerstenzang, J., “Bush says no to new Taliban offer for talks,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 15, 2001, p. A1, A8; Watson, P., “Limited U.S. raids remain a boon to foes of Taliban,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 18, 2001, p. A14; Watson, P., “Taliban fires on bazaar; 2 sellers die,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 24, 2001, p. A1, A15; Watson, P., “The rigors of life at the front,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 26, 2001, p. A1, A22.

5. Watson, P., Richter, P., & Wilson, G., “U.S. escalates its air war on Taliban north of Kabul,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 1, 2001, p. A1, A18.

6. Watson, Los Angeles Times, 10/24/01, Op cit.

7. Watson, Los Angeles Times, 10/26/01, Op cit.

8. Watson, Los Angeles Times, 10/18/01, Op cit.

9. Robbins, et al., Wall Street Journal, 10/26/01, Op cit.

10. Richter, P. & Paddock, R., “U.S. steps up strikes as target list grows,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 16, 2001, p. A1, A13.

11. Reynolds, M., “Airstrikes, negotiations mix at front,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 21, 2001, p. A16-A17.

12. Stack, M.K., “Pilots change their missions in midair,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17, 2001, p. A3; Slackman, M., “Attacks during Ramadan may be costly,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 3, 2001, p. A16.

13. Cullison, A., Cummins, C., & Greenberger, R.S., “U.S. steps up bombing of Taliban forces,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 29, 2001, p. A24; Robbins, C.A. & King, N., Jr., “Powell sees no halt in Afghan War for Ramadan,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 1, 2001, p. A3.

14. Miller, M., “Allies’ support steady, but concern is growing,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 22, 2001, p. A1, A9.

15. Arkin, W.M., “The rules of engagement,” Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2002, p. M1, M6.

16. Reynolds, Los Angeles Times, 11/21/01, Op cit.

17. Stack, Los Angeles Times, 10/17/01, Op cit.

18. Schrader, E., “War, on advice of counsel,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 15, 2002, p. A1, A16-A17.

19. New Yorker magazine, cited in “Sept. 11 suspects believed still here,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 15, 2001, p. A5.