The U.S. military carried out significantly fewer airstrikes in 2021 than it did in 2020, a change that defense analysts say is due at least in part to the August withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Biden administration’s emphasis on diplomacy over military force.
According to data obtained by VOA, U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Somalia totaled 852 last year, which was 42% fewer than the 1,459 U.S. airstrikes carried out in the same war zones in 2020.
More than a third of the strikes in the Middle East in 2020 and 2021 were carried out by a special counterterror joint task force, whose 2021 airstrike numbers are being disclosed for the first time in this report.
In addition to the counterterror joint task force data provided by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), VOA used airstrike confirmations provided in press releases by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and airpower summaries published by U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT) for this report.
Two weeks after Inauguration Day, President Joe Biden announced his administration would take steps to "course-correct" U.S. foreign policy to "better unite our democratic values with our diplomatic leadership." He tasked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to lead a review of U.S. forces around the world, so that America's military footprint was, in his words, "appropriately aligned with our foreign policy and national security priorities."
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, told VOA the published airstrike numbers reflect the ensuing defeat in Afghanistan last year, along with the more stable situations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“There were fewer targets to hit and fewer reasons to do so,” he told VOA.
U.S. forces halted strikes in Afghanistan following the end of its troop withdrawal on August 31, 2021.
The Pentagon has vowed to use "over the horizon" airstrikes from outside Afghanistan to target terrorists in the country who plan to attack the U.S. homeland or the homelands of American allies. However, the last such strike occurred on Aug. 27, 2021, targeting the Islamic State-Khorasan terror group in eastern Afghanistan. That strike came a day after a suicide bombing at Kabul's international airport killed 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghan civilians.
In Iraq and Syria, U.S. and international forces officially transitioned to a non-combat mission on Dec. 9, 2021, a day before Iraq's government celebrated its fourth anniversary of defeating the Islamic State. Airstrikes there in 2020 and 2021 were used to target the terror group's remnants and defend U.S. and international allies from attacks by militant groups backed by Iran.
"Even as the (Biden) administration negotiates with Iran in Vienna, Tehran's proxies are attacking our troops," Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VOA. He added that increased attacks from Iranian-backed militants and decreased U.S. airstrikes were a result of the president's "misunderstanding of the relationship between diplomatic success and military power."
Only one strike was carried out by the military in Yemen in 2020, which once saw multiple airstrikes each year against members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), according to CENTCOM. No U.S. military airstrikes were carried out in Yemen in 2021.
In the Horn of Africa nation of Somalia, U.S. airstrikes surged during the Trump administration, as military commanders used the strikes to quickly target the al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab without placing significant numbers of troops on the ground.
The fast pace of strikes continued into the final days of Trump's presidency, with six of the 10 strikes of 2021 carried out before Biden took office January 20.
Criticism of civilian casualty investigations
Though U.S. commanders and some analysts have applauded airstrikes' ability to limit risk to American forces, these strikes have come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks after a New York Times investigation revealed several flaws in the Pentagon's dismissals of civilian casualty claims.
Civilian casualty claims were dismissed a majority of the time by the civilian casualty cell tasked with assessing them. However, the Times reviewed 80 such assessments and “repeatedly found what appeared to be simple mistakes” -- “oversights that Times reporters were able to detect using resources widely available to the public.”
In one example, a civilian casualty claim in the Mosul neighborhood of “Siha” was dismissed because investigators failed to locate the neighborhood. Times reporters found the neighborhood in Google Maps simply by adding an “h” to the end of Siha, as Arabic names often have multiple spelling variations when converted to English. Several news reports at the time had also verified the neighborhood’s location.
Other times claims were dismissed because of the investigator's inability to determine which of many strikes in the area was the subject of the claim.
The Pentagon has said that it is committed to investigating these mistakes.
"Civilian harm is something that we do take seriously, and as the secretary said himself, we do recognize that we've got to do better," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said earlier this month in response to a question from VOA. "And as we make improvements, as we make changes, we'll certainly be transparent about that."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to show more complete numbers regarding airstrikes released by the U.S. military.