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Why the US military is delaying announcing Afghanistan combat deaths

WASHINGTON — The US military will no longer release any immediate information about American combat deaths in Afghanistan — a shift in policy that will delay casualty announcements until days after they occur.

Specifically, military officials will hold all information about the death of US troops in Afghanistan until 24 hours after the next-of-kin is notified.

Traditionally, the military has released what is considered “non-identifying information” in the hours following a combat casualty — withholding names and details of the situation for 24 hours until the family could be notified.

Under the new policy, spearheaded by Army Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, the military will no longer issue that initial statement.

“Gen. Nicholson is insistent that the support system for family members of our fallen and wounded warriors is in place with those families prior to public release; hence the 24-hour hold after next-of-kin notification,” said Capt. William Salvin, a spokesperson for US led coalition in Afghanistan.

“Information that we have historically released that was considered ‘non-identifying information’ has become identifiable given that we have such a limited footprint in Afghanistan,” he added.

Coming nearly 16 years into the US war in Afghanistan, the Pentagon says the change is intended to provide more time to set up a support system for the families of fallen soldiers before the public is notified.

But the move raises questions about the military’s commitment to notifying the public about its operations in Afghanistan and potentially in other conflict zones around the world.

A US defense official told CNN that an internal, informal review is underway to see if notification policies need to be changed or standardized across the military.

The new policy was never formally announced by the Pentagon or US commanders in Afghanistan — rather the change became apparent after the Pentagon did not release an initial statement about a recent combat death in Afghanistan.

A second defense official said its not clear how the early non-identifying notification would happen in a mass casualty incident. The official noted in the case of the death of sailors on the USS Fitzgerald, the Navy said they were missing before identifying them.

US and coalition casualties in Afghanistan have become rarer in recent years, falling dramatically since the Afghan government assumed responsibility for combat operations in 2014.

However, there’s been an uptick in violence in recent months. Three US soldiers were killed and another wounded in June during a joint US-Afghan military operation in Nangarhar Province. In late April, two US service members were killed and another wounded while conducting a joint raid in the Achin District in Nangarhar.