When it comes to reporting numbers of civilians and “combatants” it kills, the Pentagon attempts to paint itself in a positive light.
Last summer, after the Obama administration released a report estimating that between 64 and 116 civilians had been killed in drone strikes on the president’s watch, it was widely criticized for under-counting by hundreds. As recently as last month, in President Obama’s final hours of political power, the administration released a report noting that America conducted over 50 drone strikes in 2016 with what it claimed was extraordinary accuracy, “killing at least 431 enemy combatants and one civilian,” according to USA Today.
Even more recently, preventable civilian deaths have been a subject of controversy surrounding a “botched” raid approved by President Trump in Yemen. But perhaps the clearest evidence yet — certainly since Trump took office — that the Pentagon hasn’t been giving us the full picture of U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts came over the weekend, as the Military Times revealed that the numbers of deadly airstrikes reported by the Pentagon for years have been off by thousands.
The airstrikes in question took place in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. “In 2016 alone, U.S. combat aircraft conducted at least 456 airstrikes in Afghanistan that were not recorded as part of an open-source database maintained by the U.S. Air Force, information relied on by Congress, American allies, military analysts, academic researchers, the media and independent watchdog groups to assess each war’s expense, manpower requirements and human toll,” the Times reports. “Those airstrikes were carried out by attack helicopters and armed drones operated by the U.S. Army, metrics quietly excluded from otherwise comprehensive monthly summaries, published online for years, detailing American military activity in all three theaters.”
The report says there have been “potentially thousands” of lethal airstrikes that have gone previously unacknowledged. “The enormous data gap raises serious doubts about transparency in reported progress against the Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Taliban, and calls into question the accuracy of other Defense Department disclosures documenting everything from costs to casualty counts,” going back years — perhaps more than a decade.
“Most alarming is the prospect this data has been incomplete since the war on terrorism began in October 2001,” the Times reports. “If that is the case, it would fundamentally undermine confidence in much of what the Pentagon has disclosed about its prosecution of these wars, prompt critics to call into question whether the military sought to mislead the American public, and cast doubt on the competency with which other vital data collection is being performed and publicized.”
Indeed, given other problems that continue to plague the Pentagon, the news of unreported airstrikes does not help the Defense Department’s image. “Financial implications,” of the unacknowledged airstrikes, the Times reports, “if any, are unclear.”
Yet we know that the U.S. Army, the same military branch that oversaw the unreported lethal airstrikes, has made improper accounting statements in recent years to the tune of trillions of dollars. We know that the Pentagon overall, unlike every other federal agency, has never been audited.
Unaccounted for airstrikes included those by the Army’s Apache helicopters, capable of firing Hellfire missiles that cost nearly $100,000 a piece, according to the report. The lack of clarity about the Defense Department’s finances makes it essentially impossible to know at present, however, whether any corrupt military officials may have profited by keeping the newly revealed airstrikes from public view. It’s also conceivable that the lack of proper record keeping and disclosure of the airstrikes was an honest mistake, a symptom of the military’s sprawling bureaucratic organizational structure — but again, official obfuscation makes it difficult to know the truth.
If President Donald Trump is serious about fulfilling his campaign pledge to “drain the swamp” he certainly has his work cut out for him in Washington, but he also shouldn’t hesitate to cross the Potomac. The public won’t be able to get a better understanding of the important policy issues highlighted by the revelation that thousands of deadly airstrikes went unreported unless we see greater accountability and transparency at the Pentagon.