There was fewer than half the number of airstrikes during President Joe Biden’s first year in office compared to the year before, even though a botched strike is one of the most prominent black marks during the current administration’s tenure.
The U.S. military launched 439 airstrikes in 2021, and that’s a 54% decrease from the 951 strikes that were launched in 2020, the final year of President Donald Trump’s term, according to a recent report from Airwars detailing the strike data.
A significant majority of strikes over the last two years occurred in Afghanistan, with 660 of the 951 in 2020 and 372 of the 439 taking place there. The U.S. military withdrew its troops from Afghanistan at the end of August, ending its 20-year presence on the ground. The number of strikes that the United States conducted this year is also significantly down from half a decade ago, when there were more than 10,000 strikes every year from 2015-2017.
In total, the number of civilian casualties also decreased in 2021, according to the report, and there were no credible allegations of such deaths in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, or Yemen.
The decrease in strikes stands in contrast to the lasting impression they've had on the current administration's legacy in the Middle East.
During their final days on the ground, the U.S. conducted an errant strike that accidentally targeted and killed a civilian and multiple family members, 10 people in all.
At the time the strike was launched, the U.S. was conducting an evacuation effort for at-risk Afghans, Americans, and other third-country nationals who wanted to leave with the Taliban having overthrown the Ghani government. Just three days prior, an ISIS-K terrorist detonated an explosive, killing 13 U.S. service members and nearly 200 people outside the airport from which the flights were taking off. DOD and government leaders had warned the public about the possibility of additional attacks.
U.S. Air Force Inspector General Lt. Gen. Sami Said investigated the "righteous strike," which is how Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, characterized it in the days after, and concluded there were no illegalities with it. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signed off on his conclusions. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby announced Dec. 13 that no military personnel would be punished for the botched strike.
U.S. Central Command also reported that a strike in Syria in early December targeting a senior al Qaeda “leader and planner” could have also killed civilians. They’re still investigating the results of the Dec. 3 strike, though the Airwars report claimed that the strike killed at least one person and injured at least six other civilians, including as many as four children from the same family.
Even though strikes under Biden decreased from the previous year, the military has chosen to increase its reliance on such capabilities to fight terror groups in the Middle East, and Afghanistan in particular, which could, in turn, result in an increased number of strikes during the upcoming year.
Depending on over-the-horizon capabilities without a physical presence is a risky strategy, experts say, arguing that it makes the possibility of civilian casualties more likely.
"An over-the-horizon strategy dramatically increases the odds of errant strikes,” Jason Killmeyer, a national security and foreign policy expert, told the Washington Examiner. "The less intelligence you have on the ground, the more likely these things are to take place. And if we end up getting word of imminent attack planning but have very little else to accompany that word or that chatter, we will be primed to make similar mistakes."
The lack of people gathering real-time intelligence in the strike environment “absolutely” increases the chances of civilian harm because “the best intelligence is from humans on the ground,” Matt Kroenig, a former Defense official and current Georgetown University professor, told the Washington Examiner. He also said the recent errant strikes have raised "alarm bells" and that there should be an inquiry into possible "reforms."
Current DOD officials are also looking into a strike in Syria from 2019, which only began after the details of the strike were reported publicly.
Austin ordered an investigation into the March 18, 2019, strike that killed 80 people last month. CENTCOM could only confirm that among the dead were 16 fighters and four civilians, while the status of the rest remains unknown. U.S. Army Forces Commander Gen. Michael Garrett was given 90 days to submit the findings of his investigation, which will loosely coincide with the end of February.
This strike was carried out by Talon Anvil. According to The New York Times, this top-secret American strike cell launched tens of thousands of bombs and missiles against the Islamic State in Syria, and they repeatedly sidestepped procedures designed to prevent civilian casualties.
Rep. Michael Waltz, a former Green Beret who now represents Florida's 6th Congressional District, told the Washington Examiner that terror groups often engage in activities designed to illicit civilian casualties.
"Insurgents — in general, everyone that I fought against from Boko Haram to ISIS, Taliban, al Qaeda — all use on a regular basis civilians as human shields," the lawmaker stated. "They know our tactics. They know our aversion to causing civilian casualties, and it puts them in a win-win situation."
The Florida congressman also noted that “every strike” he participated in during his military service had “multi-intelligence discipline confirmation” as a verification method. However, that might not now be feasible without a physical presence.
With the ongoing reviews underway, Kirby has said that the Pentagon is open to shifting its protocols and procedures if such determinations are made.
The Pentagon is "not going to be above or afraid to make changes to the way we analyze information and intelligence, act on that intelligence, target and the actual execution procedures of a strike — we're not going to be afraid to make changes," he told reporters earlier this month, though there was no formal announcement of any upcoming changes.
There is also the possibility that the calculus changes for the military depending on the threats emanating from various areas around the world. With the U.S. out of Afghanistan, DOD officials have said that ISIS-K and al Qaeda could develop the capabilities to launch an attack outside Afghanistan within a year.
Dr. Colin H. Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in October that the terror group could "generate that capability in somewhere between six or 12 months, according to current assessments by the intelligence committee," and he noted that the timeline for al Qaeda is roughly twice as long.
Such a wide time frame means the government is “shooting from the hip,” Killmeyer added. “The administration is putting the military in a harder position where it will be forced to act in higher-stakes situations with less intelligence built up and more at risk."