Aerial Bombing Can Swell the Ranks of Insurgents

Newswise — ITHACA, N.Y. — NATO military planners in Afghanistan may benefit from an important military lesson learned from the Vietnam War: Aerial bombing missions during counterinsurgency operations are often counterproductive because they drive neutral civilians to the enemy side, according to peer-reviewed research that examined detailed data from Vietnam.

“This is a unique strategy to chart the co-evolution of bombing and insurgent control over time,” said Thomas Pepinsky, Cornell University assistant professor of government and co-author of the study, “Aerial Bombing and Counterinsurgency in the Vietnam War,” which is published online by the American Journal of Political Science.

In the study, Pepinsky and co-authors Matthew Kocher and Stathis Kalyvas of Yale University looked at whether South Vietnamese and American counterinsurgency operations benefitted from the massive bombing of the south.

“No one has ever actually tried to see in a broad, comparative sense if the bombardment was effective,” Pepinsky said. “No one’s been able to show, with anything close to the level of detail, broad coverage and rich statistical evidence that we have, that this was uniformly counterproductive for the U.S. military’s broader strategic goals.”

In wars such as those in Vietnam and Afghanistan, insurgents live among noncombatants, and it is difficult to distinguish friend from foe.

“We would suggest – although we don’t do it in the paper – that this has implications for any effort to target insurgents,” Pepinsky said. “To be effective in counterinsurgency warfare, you need to distinguish insurgents from neutrals or potential allies. Any technology that fails to do that is not only not going to work, it’s probably going to work in the wrong direction.”

Pepinsky’s paper is available online at:

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