From a Carrier, Another View of America’s Air War in Afghanistan



ABOARD U.S.S. THEODORE ROOSEVELT, on the Arabian Sea — Every day from the deck of this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier off the coast of Pakistan, two dozen combat planes are catapulted into the sky for the 500-mile trip to southern Afghanistan. There the pilots circle Taliban strongholds like an airborne 911 service and zoom in when American and British troops, spread thin and often panicked, call in airstrikes.

The Navy has been back in these waters providing more air power since August, in large part because the ground reinforcements that commanders have been pleading for have not yet come. From 15,000 feet up, the pilots protect supply lines under increasing attack, fly reconnaissance missions to find what they call “bad guys” over the next hill, and go “kinetic” with bombs that kill three, four or five Taliban fighters at a time. They can always tell when troops who call in airstrikes are under direct fire.



Right: Crew members on the flight deck of the Navy aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt last Tuesday morning. The carrier is stationed on the Arabian Sea off Pakistan 

“They’re trying to talk to you at the same time that they’re running and being shot at, so obviously there’s a lot of urgency in their voices,” said Capt. Kevin J. Kovacich, the Roosevelt’s air wing commander.

Captain Kovacich and many of his pilots last dropped bombs in Afghanistan in March 2002, when the American military seemed to have dealt a near fatal blow to the Taliban. Now the United States military is experiencing the limitations of air power in a seven-year war, in which an increasing American reliance on airstrikes against insurgents has kindled growing fury over the civilian casualties that have come with them.

“Those insurgents are wily,” said Cmdr. Fredrick R. Luchtman, the commanding officer of a Roosevelt squadron of F/A-18C Hornets, who also flew missions over Afghanistan in early 2002. “They will meld themselves within the population. They will fire from areas that they know that if we put a bomb there, it’s going to look bad.”

The pilots do not need to be told that civilian deaths soared last year in Afghanistan, the majority from Taliban attacks, but others from airstrikes called in by American and British troops under fire. President Hamid Karzai has so angrily condemned the strikes that in December he was invited to visit the Roosevelt, so that officers could try to persuade him that they took care where they aimed their bombs.

As Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, the commander of United States naval forces in the region, put it: “We don’t drop when we’re unsure.”

The visit, by the Navy’s account at least, went well. Mr. Karzai watched jets take off from the flight deck and was briefed on how the pilots try to minimize “collateral damage.” Afterward, he sent the ship one of his trademark karakul hats and a Christmas card. But for the pilots, tensions remain.

“If it was positively identified as hostile in Iraq, you took it out,” said Commander Luchtman, who also flew missions over Baghdad in 2003. “Here, just because it’s positively identified as hostile, you’ve still got to mitigate the other things around.”

To support ground troops in Afghanistan, the United States flew more than 19,000 combat missions in the country in 2008 — more than ever before, surpassing even the number in Iraq over the same period. But over all, American pilots dropped slightly fewer bombs and other munitions, perhaps as a result of more restrictive rules imposed in September after an uproar about civilian casualties.

“To win the insurgency, we’re not going to bomb our way out of this,” said Col. Harry A. Foster, the chief of the strategy division of the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Southwest Asia, the command headquarters for the air wars over Iraq and Afghanistan. To that end, pilots on the Roosevelt often engage in a “show of force” — flying as low as 1,000 feet and making a lot of noise to scare the Taliban — and say they drop bombs as a last resort.

The Navy says the pilots on the Roosevelt fly about 30 percent of combat missions over Afghanistan; the majority of the flights are handled by the Air Force from bases in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region. The Navy was called in last summer when attacks on American and NATO supply lines were on the rise and military commanders decided they needed to get the trucks off the roads and use more air transport.

The pilots fly many other missions for reconnaissance, using sensors to take pictures from the air of, for example, how many Taliban fighters are on the other side of a wall, or how many might be ahead of a NATO convoy. The pictures go directly to the laptops of troops on the ground. “So if there are three warm bodies in that compound, we will know that there are three warm bodies in that compound,” Commander Luchtman said.

The Roosevelt arrived to relieve another carrier in mid-October and will remain in the region until late March. The carrier was last here in October 2001. Although Captain Kovacich and Commander Luchtman were here around the same time, they flew from different ships.

The Roosevelt pilots say they did not expect to be back, but they make no judgments, at least none they are willing to share, on the need for their return, or on whether what they do is making a difference in the overall conflict.

On Wednesday in Washington, Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top American commander in Afghanistan, said the war was “at best stalemated” in the very region in which the pilots operate. Most of the 17,000 additional American troops that President Obama ordered to Afghanistan last week will be used in the area.

What the pilots do say is that flying six-hour round-trip missions six days a week, they are doing what they have been asked: providing air support to troops in remote areas. “All I know,” said Cmdr. Richard McGrath, a pilot and executive officer of one of the Roosevelt squadrons, “is that we dropped the bomb where it was supposed to go, when it was supposed to go.”

Elisabeth Bumiller reported from the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt this month and updated this article with information from Washington.


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