BOMBS AWAY….USA Today reports that airstrikes are way up in Iraq this year:

The U.S. military has increased airstrikes in Iraq four-fold this year, reflecting a steep escalation in combat operations aimed at al-Qaeda and other militants.

….More precise targeting and smaller bombs have made it easier for the Air Force to support ground troops in counterinsurgencies, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We’re hitting within 15 feet of where we’re aiming,” [Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen] Mueller said.

Really? Over at Slate, Fred Kaplan takes a closer look at the numbers and reports that although airstrikes have been on the upswing all year, they only really started to skyrocket this past June. Did U.S. bombs really get 10x more precise in the span of a single month?

Probably not. The more likely explanation, Kaplan thinks, is that airstrikes are being used to keep U.S. casualties down — despite the fact that standard counterinsurgency doctrine recommends against operations that result in large number of civilian casualties:

Since the surge began and Gen. Petraeus shifted the strategy to counterinsurgency, the number of U.S. airstrikes has soared….More telling still, the number of airstrikes soared most dramatically at about the same time that U.S. troop fatalities declined.

….It is a natural temptation to try to fight the Iraqi insurgents from the air. The fact is, the “surge” — an extra 30,000 U.S. troops sent to Iraq on top of the existing 130,000 — was never enough to make a decisive difference. As the troops assumed a more aggressive posture against the insurgents, it was expected that they would find themselves in difficult spots, that they would take more casualties; and one thing American soldiers are trained to do in such circumstances is to call in air support. No one can blame them for protecting themselves.

….However, air support has its limits….The old adage about warfare — that it’s easy to kill people, hard to kill a particular person — is doubly true of aerial warfare. And in counterinsurgency warfare, the consequences are counterproductive.

This leads to the critical question: How, in recent months, are the Iraqi people perceiving the U.S. military presence? How are they gauging the chance of success? Do they welcome the troops, or do they want them to leave?

Kaplan promises more on this tomorrow.