An aversion in NATO capitals to allied casualties, plus all-too-frequent shortages of ground troops, have forced commanders to turn to the sky in efforts to beat insurgents still going strong six years after the U.S.-led invasion.
Even if further troops were available -- and there are no signs that any of NATO's 26 members or partner nations are in the mood to stump up more -- some analysts sense a preference for air power over riskier deployments of ground troops.
"Countries such as Canada are already under pressure to reduce troops," said Matthew Clements, Eurasia editor at Jane's Country Risk report. "They don't want more casualties."
I remember a couple years ago, when an American reporter visited Iraq for the first time. The reporter drove from Basra to Baghdad and his main observation was the lack of visible American presence. This visit coincided with the period, wherein American public opinion was decidedly turning against the war. There was the sense that the troops were largely confined to their bases, because public opinion would no longer tolerate high casualties. In retrospect, this hesitation might well be remembered as the time when the war was ultimately lost.
Last fall, there was a particularly deadly incident, where Canadian troops were ambushed during an offensive. The fighting was fierce, close and "primitive". I remember during the next offensive, one of the Canadian commanders commented on having learned a lesson, and there would be a greater emphasis on clearing and securing an area before troops were sent in, on masse. It was also at this time that the military brought over the tanks and other heavy artillery. I took that change in philosophy to be as much a political consideration as it was a military one.
Coalition countries will not except heavy casualties, and as a result air strikes, long range artillery, are the preferred tactic in an effort to avoid direct combat wherever possible. You could make the argument that an overall lack of troops makes the reliance on air power a certainty, but you could equally counter that the lack of troops is a result of political failure- not enough governments willing to put their political careers on the line over defeating the Taliban.
When you see what is happening in Afghanistan, I wonder if the "lessons of Vietnam" aren't repeating themselves, as the military moves in concert with what is considered acceptable back home. I don't see how that reality can translate to a "winning strategy".