Who Are the Dudes and the Vipers, and Why Are They Bombing the Afghans?

Last month, when dozens of Taliban fighters attacked U.S. Combat Outpost (or COP) Margah in Afghanistan’s remote Paktika province, on the Pakistani border, the defenders called for airstrikes. 

As automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) struck the compound, Staff Sergeant Seth Pena, an Air Force forward air controller, guided in Navy F-18 Hornets, which were already flying in the area, to provide close air support.  Then, using military call-sign slang, he radioed for a "Dude flight" of F-15 Eagles and a "Viper flight" of F-16 Fighting Falcons from Bagram Airfield.

"I requested the Dudes and Vipers because I needed a lot of ordnance and fast," Pena said, according to an Air Force press release. "RPGs had already hit inside the COP and things were getting serious. There was a large enemy force moving towards us from multiple positions and we were taking a heavy amount of small arms fire."

In the end, the Air Force jets alone dropped more than 9,000 pounds of bombs and the Americans claimed a body count of more than 70 guerrillas. 

These close air support missions are just a few of the many thousands that have been carried out in Afghanistan this year. According to official Air Force statistics, nearly 30,000 close air support sorties were conducted as of October 31. Of these, 1,401 were attack sorties. Over the course of the year thus far, these airstrikes have resulted in more than 4,450 instances in which munitions, most notably bombs, have been expended.

This marks a major uptick in U.S. air operations in Afghanistan. Last year, by the end of October, just under 27,000 close air support sorties and 4,065 “weapons releases,” as the Air Force calls them, had been carried out. 

Air strikes by U.S. and coalition forces killed 171 Afghan civilians in 2010, according to United Nations statistics. During the first half of this year, the UN counted 35 civilians killed in fixed-wing airstrikes. How many Afghan civilians actually died as a result of U.S. air power is unknown, since reports from rural zones are spotty and U.S. forces routinely classify all males killed, even civilians, as militants.

Since then, additional news of additional killings by U.S. or allied airpower have surfaced. 

In August, according to AFP, eight civilians -- an imam, his wife and their six children – were reportedly killed in an attack aimed at suspected Taliban fighters in Helmand province.

That same month, reports emerged regarding six civilians killed by an airstrike in Logar Province in eastern Afghanistan.

Last week, seven Afghan civilians -- six of them children – were killed in an air strike in Kandahar province, according to local officials. Two days later, on November 25, an attack by helicopters gunships and possibly fixed-wing aircraft on a Pakistani border post in the neighboring country killed at least 24 soldiers

The use of U.S. airpower in Afghanistan stands in marked contrast to the situation in Iraq. As of October 31, U.S. Air Force aircraft had flown just 4,603 sorties in 2011, just three of them to attack enemy targets, down from 6,316 and four, respectively, last year. As recently as 2008, the Air Force conducted as many as 18,422 close air support sorties in Iraq, and in 533 of those missions utilized weapons, according to the Air Force.

Sorties there are about to drop to zero, according to Major General Russell Handy, the commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Iraq. In a recent phone interview from Baghdad, Handy told AlterNet that there are currently no arrangements in place to allow the U.S. to fly missions over Iraq after Dec. 31, 2011.

“We have no authority nor any agreements,” he said in regard to conducting operations in Iraqi airspace from the many U.S. military bases in the region. Nor, said Handy, was he aware of any ongoing negotiations about forging such an accord before the fast-approaching deadline to remove all U.S. troops from the country at the end of this year.

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