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In the news: US restricts Afghanistan airstrike data

Airstrikes were rising along with civilian casualties.

Data shows airstrikes in Afghanistan have sharply risen since January 2017. (Irwin Loy/TNH)

Citing delicate Taliban peace talks, the US military is no longer publicly releasing data on airstrikes in Afghanistan, cutting off a source used to track the impacts of a decades-long conflict.

In a statement to The New Humanitarian, a US Air Forces spokesperson confirmed the military has stopped publishing the monthly data, pointing to diplomatic concerns, “including how the report could adversely impact ongoing discussions with the Taliban regarding Afghanistan peace talks”.

The United States and the Taliban signed a treaty on 29 February calling for the withdrawal of international military forces within 14 months and direct ceasefire talks between the militant group and the Afghan government. But those discussions have stumbled for weeks over prisoner releases – on top of infighting among Afghanistan’s leaders and the coronavirus pandemic.

The latest publicly available airpower figures track “weapons released”, including drone strikes and piloted aircraft, up to the end of February 2020. The data shows airstrikes have sharply risen since January 2017, when 54 strikes were recorded, to a half-decade peak of nearly 1,000 last September:

At the same time, UN statistics show a corresponding rise in civilian casualties caused by airstrikes from pro-government forces, including international militaries. Airstrikes killed or injured more than 1,000 civilians last year – a decade high representing about a tenth of the year’s total casualties.

Human Rights Watch says rising casualties may be tied to US policy changes in 2017 that allowed Afghan forces to call in airstrikes without their US counterparts identifying the targets.

The redacted airstrike figures are the latest military data to be restricted in a conflict that killed or injured 10,000 civilians in 2019.

The US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan, Resolute Support, recently also restricted data on “enemy-initiated attacks”, or EIA, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a watchdog body that reports to the US Congress on how American funds are spent.

“This EIA data was one of the last remaining metrics SIGAR was able to use to report publicly on the security situation in Afghanistan,” SIGAR said in a quarterly report released last week.

In 2018, the NATO mission also stopped releasing data comparing district control – estimates that showed consistent drops in government-controlled territory and comparable gains by the Taliban and other insurgents.

– Irwin Loy

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