On Monday, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the U.S. combatant command responsible for military operations in Afghanistan, announced that the U.S. Air Force would no longer provide regular public updates on the number of airstrikes it was carrying out in its area of responsibility.
CENTCOM’s area of responsibility extends to Afghanistan, but also covers the Middle East. According to a spokesperson for CENTCOM, Cmdr. Zachary Harrell, the decision was due to “diplomatic relational concerns, including how the report could adversely impact ongoing discussions with the Taliban regarding Afghanistan peace talks.”
“Until such time that this product is determined not be a risk at possibly jeopardizing current relations, the Air Power Summary will not be published,” he added. The United States has tried to support the implementation of a tenuous peace agreement with the Taliban, which was agreed at the end of February in Doha, Qatar.
CENTCOM has normally shared airpower updates on a monthly basis going back to at least 2013. The data has included the number of total aircraft sorties and aggregate strike numbers. This has included operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The new changes will affect the publishing of strike totals for Iraq and Syria even though this has no direct bearing on the diplomatic process with the Taliban.
The decision comes amid broader concerns among senior U.S. officials that the implementation of the February agreement with the Taliban is not proceeding well. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, speaking at a Washington, D.C., think tank event this week, said that the process was “behind schedule.”
“We continue to talk to both sides about what they need to do to fully implement the agreement,” referring to the Afghan government, which was not a party to the U.S.-Taliban agreement, and the Taliban themselves. The Afghan government and the Taliban have been log jammed over the sequencing and pace of prisoner releases by Kabul, among other issues.
Separately, a power struggle between Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president and the declared winner of last year’s presidential elections, and Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s former chief executive and now self-declared president of Afghanistan, has complicated matters. Additionally, the Afghan government has sought to both manage the ongoing internal political crisis and talks with the Taliban while managing the spread of the COVID–19 pandemic within the country’s borders.
The decision by CENTCOM to cease publishing previously available data on U.S. Air Force activities will likely draw scorn from government transparency watchdogs. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has previously warned against a lack of transparency in U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.