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Aviation brigade lands with 'plenty of firepower'

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — War choppers are arriving in large number to the skies of southern Afghanistan, even as civilian deaths caused by U.S. air strikes grow increasingly controversial.

"We're bringing in plenty of firepower," U.S. Colonel Paul Bricker said yesterday, as his new 3,200-soldier aviation brigade formally took over from a much smaller helicopter group that arrived in Afghanistan early this year. "They've never had much of a combat aviation brigade in the south."

Military officials are touting the helicopter group as a potential "game changer" for the NATO forces faced with a growing insurgency. More than 100 Apaches, Blackhawks, transport and medical-evacuation helicopters have arrived in and around Kandahar in recent weeks.

Col. Bricker touted his 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, which includes paratroopers, as the first proof of an influx of the "additive forces" into Afghanistan's south promised by U.S. President Barack Obama. Thousands more soldiers and hundreds more aircraft are still to come.

While U.S. air power is increasing, it has already emerged as a top-tier issue in Afghanistan.

Early this month, dozens of children and other civilians — more than 100 in total by Afghan estimates — were killed in a single battle, which took place about 200 kilometres northwest of Kandahar.

U.S. fighter jets bombed houses after ground troops gave chase to Taliban fighters, who hid in a village after a firefight. Several U.S. and Afghan investigations are taking place to find out what went wrong.

That alarm over this and many similar incidents means that the use of force employed by other U.S. aircraft is being closely watched in Afghanistan, since heavy civilian casualties are undermining support for counterinsurgency operations.

"Any loss of civilian life is tragic and we go to great lengths to avoid that," Col. Bricker said.

The helicopters will be used mostly in support operations, to rapidly ferry soldiers, the wounded and equipment around the south. Roadways can be dangerous, with insurgents placing hidden, improvised bombs along them that target military convoys.

Col. Bricker added that his nimble helicopters have significant attack capabilities, and suggested they could target Taliban supply lines, training camps and bomb-building cells.

Asked about situations where Taliban fighters would seek refuge in schools and villages, Col. Bricker said it was likely that his air group would not attack. Rather, he said, his group would help cordon off an area until ground troops could help clear it out.

Helicopters are not new to southern Afghanistan but have tended to be used mainly for transport.

The Canadian Forces, placed in charge of securing Kandahar province in recent years, did not have any helicopters until 14 transport and reconnaissance aircraft arrived this past winter. Before that, Canadians had relied on allies for air transport.

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