The U.S. Central Command recently announced that troop numbers in Iraq and Syria will no longer be reported to the public. In its announcement, CENTCOM spokesman Army Col. John Thomas declared that “capabilities, not numbers,” should be the area of focus, and the public will be given general estimates of troop sizes in the future.
Jason Ditz of antiwar.com points out that the Obama administration was already less than forthcoming about the number of soldiers sent to these areas by utilizing a variety of tactics, including “deliberately omitting large numbers of troops from the official count by labeling them ‘temporary.'”
The Pentagon’s announcement comes during a time in which the U.S. military’s recent use of airstrikes is under fresh scrutiny and stands accused of causing deaths of hundreds of civilians in recent weeks, including strikes in Mosul last week that killed an unconfirmed, but reportedly numerous, number of noncombatants.
According to Reuters regarding the strike in Mosul, “Eyewitnesses from Mosul and Iraqi officials have said last week’s strike on Islamic State targets may have collapsed homes where rescue officials say as many as 200 people were buried in the rubble.” Reuters described this event as “one of the deadliest single incidents for civilians in recent memory in any major conflict involving the U.S. military.”
In the Pentagon’s acknowledgment of the Mosul strike and announcement of its investigation into the incident, Army Col. Joseph Scrocca admitted that “we believe a coalition strike contributed in at least some way to the civilian casualties.”
In addition, reports have surfaced alleging that recent U.S. airstrikes in Syria have led to significant civilian deaths. One strike that was launched in northern Syria in mid-March, reportedly targeted at a building “that local officials said was a mosque filled with worshippers at evening prayer” and also resulted in civilian casualties. Another strike by a U.S.-led coalition at a school in Raqqa that was being “used as refugee centre,” according to The Guardian. The Guardian’s report notes that “Over the past eight months, there have been four cases in which US planes or drones have been blamed for mass civilian casualties in Syria.”
The new U.S. presidential administration has unsurprisingly provided little change in its approach to foreign policy and the war on terror; in fact, President Trump is currently considering sending at least 1,000 more troops to Syria. As Ditz noted, the government has long lacked transparency regarding troop numbers in Iraq and Syria, and it appears that while CENTCOM may be seeking to avoid further criticism over specific deployment numbers by simply eliminating these reports. However, this increase in secrecy that further places civilians in the dark will undoubtedly exacerbate tensions across the globe in regards to American accountability.
Another troubling revelation from Thomas is the military’s dismissal of making changes to airstrike policy. Thomas stated that General Joseph Votel, the head of CENTCOM, “is not looking into changing the way we operate other than to say our processes are good and we want to make sure we live by those processes.”