MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And to Afghanistan now, where civilian casualties continued to set back the U.S. mission there. Helicopter strikes on civilians are a big problem and U.S. commanders say they're trying to fix that. But the rate of errors by the pilots of fixed-wing aircraft has plummeted, thanks in part to the elite Air Force spotters who travel on the ground with combat troops.
NPR's Quil Lawrence recently spent a few nights on a freezing mountaintop with a team of spotters as they watched over a mission in eastern Afghanistan.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Well after midnight, tech sergeant John Oliver is leaning on one elbow in the dirt, sheltering himself from the wind at the top of a mile high mountain in Laghman province. Oliver is a JTAC, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller for the U.S. Air Force. Think of him as an air traffic controller for war zones, keeping track of helicopters, planes, jets, and targeting all the deadly bombs and missiles they carry.
He's hunched over a video monitor to block the light that might give away his position as he talks with the pilots thousands of feet overhead.
JOHN OLIVER: I'm able to point him out and he's able to point me out the same. So right now he's looking at a village that's to our south that we're going to be going into tomorrow. Our guys are just north of it sleeping right now.
LAWRENCE: Several hundred U.S. and Afghan soldiers are pushing through the Galuch Valley below. Last August, the Afghan army tried to take this valley but walked into a Taliban ambush. Dozens of soldiers were killed and captured. The Afghan commanders hadn't coordinated with NATO troops or air support.
This time, the propellers and jet engines leave no doubt that NATO and Afghan forces are in the valley, and the insurgents have apparently fled or stashed their weapons and blended with the population.
But the devastating air power advantage also creates deep tension between NATO commanders and the Afghan government and population. Lieutenant Colonel Brian Filler is leading the team of JTACs on this mission.
BRIAN FILLER: Yeah, they're talking about the issues of civilian casualties. That's huge. We can win a tactical battle, but if we blow up half the town and kill some civilians to do it, it just puts us further behind.
LAWRENCE: Almost since the U.S. invasion, American airstrikes have drawn protests from Afghan civilians and condemnation from President Hamid Karzai. After one recent attack, when an Apache helicopter killed nine boys gathering firewood, Karzai refused to accept an apology from General David Petraeus. Perhaps because the U.S. military had recently denied responsibility for what Afghans said was another instance of mass civilian casualties caused by a helicopter strike.
A U.N. study says 2010 was the worst year yet for civilian casualties, but it lays most of the blame on the Taliban and other insurgents who use indiscriminate weapons, like land mines. But Lieutenant Colonel Filler says the Taliban can still turn U.S. airpower into a propaganda victory.
FILLER: It gives us such an overwhelming advantage, but the enemy knows that, so they will exploit civilian casualties to the greatest extent possible. So that's why I said sometimes it's better just to let the guy go.
LAWRENCE: For Filler, letting the guy go means watching from aerial surveillance but not advising the pilot to pull the trigger if the target gets too close to civilians. According to U.S. military stats, civilian casualties caused by fixed-wing aircraft dropped by 65 percent last year. But at the same time, attack helicopters caused about 65 percent more civilian casualties.
Military officials say the number of helicopters in the country has tripled. Helicopters often fly within range of ground weapons like rocket-propelled grenades, so they have less room for error and perhaps less time to make life- and-death decisions. The disparity has prompted General David Petraeus to issue an order that all helicopter attack teams be rebriefed on his directive to reduce civilian casualties.
The JTACs, like Filler and Oliver, have been deploying in much greater numbers in order to cut down on errors. They travel with army units spending much more time on the ground and on the frontline than most of the Air Force. From these rough conditions, they make spot decisions that often turn the tide of battles, but with grave consequences if they go wrong, says Oliver.
OLIVER: It can be a lot of pressure when that's the only weapon that you can use and everybody's depending on you to make sure you hit the right target, you know. If you're pinned down in contact and that can weigh pretty heavily, you know.
LAWRENCE: On this quiet mission with many friendly forces and civilians to keep track of, the biggest challenge turned out to be the weather.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAIN)
LAWRENCE: With most of the insurgents lying low, Colonel Filler pulls a shift on the radio hiding under a small plastic garbage bag. He guides in a medevac chopper to take out a few Afghan soldiers suffering from hypothermia.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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