The U.S. military has stopped publishing important information on its air war in Afghanistan, just two months after deciding to release it.
In October, the U.S. began publishing monthly data on its strikes in the country following a yearlong blackout. The release was welcomed by many as a step towards greater military transparency, with the new dataset also detailing where and what the strikes hit.
However, in its release of figures for November, the U.S. military stripped out information on the strikes’ targets without explanation, prompting concern from civilian protection experts and military transparency advocates. Operation Resolute Support, the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan, told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that the sudden withdrawal of information was due to operational security concerns.
“We determined we were giving the enemy too much detail with the information we were providing in the strike reports,” a spokesperson for Resolute Support told the Bureau. “The strikes by themselves are stand-alone events, but together across time tell a comprehensive story of our targeting methodology, which we prefer not provide to our adversaries.”
The decision not to publish the target information came shortly after the Bureau published an article in Just Security drawing on the data that highlighted the number of buildings destroyed in U.S. strikes. The Bureau’s analysis, also published on its own website, found that more than 60 buildings had been destroyed by the October strikes. Evidence shows that such attacks have a higher impact on civilians because those directing the strikes on buildings may not know exactly who is inside. Two recent strikes on buildings have been found to have resulted in civilian casualties. A Nov. 27 strike in Helmand Province that hit a compound reportedly led to 23 civilian deaths.
Larry Lewis, a civilian casualty expert at the Center for Naval Analyses research institute, said he was not surprised at Resolute Support’s decision.
“Transparency can be painful in the short term, and military personnel who make these decisions are often incentivized to think in the short term” said Lewis. “It takes strategic thinking to push on with transparency efforts despite the criticism that will inevitably come.”
Sahr Muhammedally, a Middle East and South Asia expert at the nonprofit civilian protection organization CIVIC, also expressed concerns at the withdrawal of the data on strike targets.
“U.S. forces in Afghanistan should not backtrack on [their] record on transparency by withholding data on what strikes hit; nor should the U.S. weaken standards in targeting,” Muhammedally said. “Targeting procedures must include a presumption of civilian presence in buildings in order to inform measures to minimize civilian harm.”
Resolute Support did not provide a direct answer when asked by the Bureau why the operational security risk of releasing target information had changed within the space of two months.
The official reason given for the latest withdrawal of information — unwillingness to give information to the enemy — echoes what the Bureau was told when the U.S. decided to abruptly stop providing monthly strike totals in October 2017, a policy that was later reversed.
Mandy Smithberger, a national security expert at the independent U.S. watchdog Project on Government Oversight, told the Bureau, “Operational security is important, but so is democratic accountability. Without more transparency and oversight, we can’t have an informed conversation about what we are achieving or failing to accomplish.”
IMAGE: U.S. Air Force 122nd Fighter Wing weapon loaders prepare an A-10 Thunderbolt II for flight at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, May 21, 2018. The aircraft provide close-air support for coalition and Afghan forces on the front lines. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)