Flashback: U.S. troops will have big impact on Afghan mission: Canadian commander | Obama adds another brigade to Afghanistan troop surge | Canada, allies will never defeat Taliban, PM says | Cost of Afghan mission jumps to $11.3-billion | Afghanistan victory unlikely, says DND manual | New Canadian commander in Afghanistan welcomes U.S. troop influx | Tories seek extra $331-million for Afghan mission | Obama eyes 3 more brigades for Afghanistan | Canadian military acquiring new helicopters, drones
Colin Freeze, Globe and Mail
May 15, 2009
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – After being gone for years, war choppers are coming back, in force, to the skies of southern Afghanistan.
“We’re bringing in plenty of firepower,” U.S. Col. Paul Bricker told a group of reporters yesterday, as his new 3,200-soldier aviation brigade formally took over from a smaller, 500-soldier group that had arrived in Afghanistan early this year. “They’ve never had much of a combat aviation brigade in the south,” Col. Bricker said, following the transfer-of-command ceremony.
Touted as a potential “game changer” for the NATO forces faced with a growing insurgency, more than 100 U.S. Apaches, Blackhawk, transport and medical-evacuation helicopters have arrived in Kandahar in recent weeks.
Col. Bricker said his 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, which includes paratroopers, amounts to the first manifestation of a U.S. military influx into Afghanistan’s south, as promised by President Barack Obama. Thousands more soldiers and dozens more helicopters are still coming.
The stepped-up air power arrives as an outcry over U.S. air strikes killing civilians has emerged as a top-tier issue in Afghanistan. Many Afghans remain scarred by the indiscriminate force used by Soviet helicopter gunships a generation ago.
Earlier this month, dozens of children and other civilians – more than 100 by some estimates – were killed northwest of Kandahar. U.S. fighter jets bombed houses as ground troops gave chase to Taliban fighters, who took refuge in a village following a firefight. Various investigations are taking place.
The alarm over air power means the use of force employed by helicopters and other aircraft will be closely watched in Afghanistan, given mass civilian casualties can be devastating for counterinsurgency operations.
During the transfer-of-command ceremony this morning, officials said they hoped the influx of new helicopters would ultimately help Afghan children grow enjoying freedom. “Any loss of civilian life is tragic and we go to great lengths to avoid that,” Col. Bricker said afterward.
He explained that his helicopters would mostly be used in support operations to rapidly ferry soldiers, wounded and equipment around the south, where roadways are infested with insurgents and their hidden, improvised bombs.
He added his helicopters also have significant attack capabilities, and Col. Bricker said their speed, combined with paratroopers, could be used to take out Taliban supply lines, and possibly even training camps and bomb-building cells.
Asked about situations where Taliban fighters may take refuge in schools and villages, Col. Bricker said it was likely his air group would not attack. Rather, he said, it would help cordon off an area until ground troops could help clear out enemy forces.
“We are very committed to being judicious in our application of force,” he said.
Helicopters are not new to southern Afghanistan, but they have tended to be used mainly for transport.
The Canadian Forces, which was placed in charge of securing Kandahar province, did not have any helicopters at all until 14 transport and reconnaissance helicopters arrived this past winter.
Around the same time, the smaller, 500-soldier group led by the U.S. 101st Airborne, or “Screaming Eagles,” began arriving too, though it is now redeploying to eastern Afghanistan.
The mountains and deserts of southern Afghanistan have always amounted to a boon for insurgents and barriers to government forces. During the 1980s, for example, the occupying Soviet army relied heavily on helicopter gunships to pacify insurgents across the country.
However, heavy civilian casualties led a variety of countries, including the United States, to supply the rebels with sophisticated surface-to-air missiles — themselves seen a “game-changer” of a response that may have ultimately led to the Soviet withdrawal. The 1980s saga of the Stinger missiles was chronicled in the book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War.
Outside the media briefing, Col. Bricker said today’s Taliban are not known to have weapons capable of challenging U.S. helicopters.
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