On Friday, the Air Force Times reported that the U.S. Air Force Central Command (AFCENT) has stopped including the number of drone strikes carried out in Afghanistan in its monthly air power summaries. The Air Force had originally begun giving a monthly breakdown of weapons released by drones in October 2012 in an effort, according to spokeswoman Captain Kim Bender, to "provide more detailed information on RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] ops in Afghanistan." This policy was followed in November, December, and January. However, in the summary for February, published on March 7, the numbers were missing.
The reversal in policy comes amid the heightened scrutiny of the U.S. drone program, both in Afghanistan and elsewhere, including the announcement of a major United Nations investigation into the legality of the program, and the debate surrounding drones during the confirmation process for John Brennan as CIA director. Given this environment and the timing, the quiet removal of this data by the Air Force seems to be the product of more than mere coincidence.
The reason given for the removal of the data was that it "disproportionately focused" on the strikes, while the majority of drone operations are for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In wonderfully dry and euphemistic language, Central Command said in a statement, "a variety of multi-role platforms provide ground commanders in Afghanistan with close air support capabilities, and it was determined that presenting the weapons release data as a whole better reflects the airpower provided in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Kinetic events involving RPAs are the exception, with only about 3 percent of all RPA sorties over Afghanistan involving kinetic events."
Furthermore, the data for drone strikes has also been removed from the previous reports, with the information being deleted as recently as of February 22, according to the Air Force Times. As Max Rivlin-Nadler at Gawker points out, this was just days before Brennan's confirmation hearings began. The information, however, is still available through Archive.org, a digital library that offers access to millions of archived websites.
The decision to remove the data was apparently taken with International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. According to Defense Department spokesperson Commander Bill Speaks, the department was not involved in the decision. It is hard to believe, however, that the department wasn't at least aware of the decision.
The removal of this data from monthly summaries makes it harder to track trends in the use of drone strikes in Afghanistan. In 2012, drones carried out more strikes – over 447 – in Afghanistan than in any other year. This meant that drone strikes in 2012 represented 11.5% of the entire air war, an increase of about 6.5% from 2011. So while strikes may only represent about 3% of drone operations, they still account for a significant, and growing, part of the war in Afghanistan. And this makes the need for a detailed and accurate breakdown of their use even more pressing, especially given that U.S. reliance on drones is expected to increase as the number of troops on the ground are reduced.
In light of these two trends – the growing scrutiny of the U.S. drone program and the growing use of drone strikes – it is hard not to find the timing of this policy reversal suspicious. It appears to be more a deliberate ploy to try and limit public scrutiny than simply a coincidence. And given the Obama administration's lack of transparency regarding the drone program this wouldn't be a surprise.