U.S. strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Somalia and Yemen have fallen 54 percent this year–from 951 last year to 439 through Nov. 30 this year, per a new report from the London-based Airwars, a non-profit that investigates civilian harm by militaries worldwide.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. strikes declined from 660 in 2020 to 372 this year before the withdrawal of U.S. forces on Aug. 31; in Iraq and Syria from 201 to 58; in Somalia from 72 to 9; and in Yemen from 18 to zero.
To tabulate the figures, Airwars said that it used input from U.S. combatant commands and recently released Pentagon data on strikes in Afghanistan in the last two years.
“If you were to remove Afghanistan from the data, the United States has declared just 67 strikes across the globe so far in 2021,” Airwars said. “While at the time [of the Aug. 31 Afghanistan withdrawal] Biden discussed the possibility of continuing ‘over the horizon’ airstrikes from a nearby country, this has not yet happened.”
An Air Force Inspector General review of the U.S.’ last air attack in Afghanistan–an Aug. 29 drone strike in Kabul–resulted in a recommendation of no disciplinary action against U.S. military personnel involved in that action.
In that strike, a General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper shot a Lockheed Martin [LMT] AGM-114 Hellfire missile that killed 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children and Zamarai Ahmadi, a 43-year-old aid worker with the U.S.-based Nutrition and Education International nonprofit who was bringing water containers to his family. U.S. Central Command Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie has said that six Reapers had tracked a white Toyota Corolla for eight hours and that analysts had feared that the containers were laden with ISIS-K explosives.
Humanitarian organizations are concerned that the Pentagon has not been transparent about the full extent of air strikes’ toll on civilians.
“On December 17th 2021, Biden’s administration finally released strike data for the final two years of the Afghanistan war,” the Airwars report said. “Such monthly releases were standard practice for nearly two decades but were stopped in March 2020, with the Trump administration arguing that their ongoing release could jeopardise peace talks with the Taliban. The Biden administration then chose to continue with that secrecy.”
“Now we can see why,” Airwars said. “The new releases show that despite a ‘peace’ agreement with the Taliban signed on February 29th 2020, under which the U.S. was expected to withdraw in 14 months, the Pentagon continued its aggressive aerial campaigns in Afghanistan. Between March and December 2020, more than 400 previously undeclared strikes took place under Trump, while there were at least 300 US strikes in Afghanistan under Biden until August.”
The Pentagon has targeted the end of this year for the issuance of a DoD Instruction (DoDI) on Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response.
Larry Lewis, the director of the Center for Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence at the non-profit research group CNA and an author of a 2010 civilian casualty study for the Joint Staff, has written that the Aug. 29 strike in Kabul fit a typical pattern of civilian casualties in U.S. air strikes–misidentification and transient civilians.
“The U.S. has committed thousands of civilian harm incidents, and they all have things in common, patterns that emerge,” Lewis said. “The best way to improve is to identify the patterns and find ways to mitigate them. See the forest for the trees.”
Lewis said that in 2011 he compared manned aircraft to drones “and found that drones were 10 times more likely to cause civilian casualties than manned aircraft.”
“Drones have a number of features that increase the risk to civilians,” Lewis said. “One of those features is a distributed process for processing, exploitation, and dissemination. I found that there was a pattern. In a set of cases, the fact that civilians were present in the target area was known by someone in the group of operators and analysts, but that information didn’t reach the commander making the decision to fire.”