- Azmat Khan (AK)
- Anand Gopal (AG)
Azmat Khan is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and an investigative reporter for the New York Times who covers the human cost of war, including through a multi-award-winning, yearslong investigation into the civilian casualties of US air strikes in the Middle East.
Anand Gopal is a professor at the Center on the Future of War at Arizona State University and a journalist who investigates the war on terror. His book about the lives of Afghans caught in the crosshairs of the US war against the Taliban was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
Reporting on the ground, Khan and Gopal found that civilian casualties in the Middle East and Afghanistan far outstrip the death count acknowledged by the US military. Together, their investigations of the toll of American wars reveal systematic human rights abuses and a culture of military cover-ups — with damning moral implications.
We’re discussing this in March as Russian forces occupy parts of Ukraine. There has already been more attention on this conflict than on any American conflict since 2004 and 2005 in Iraq. Of course, the withdrawal from Afghanistan was heavily covered, but this coverage focused on the evacuation, not on the consequences of twenty years of war for Afghans.
There is a great deal of Western media coverage of the experiences of civilians in the ongoing war in Ukraine. News organizations have deployed reporting teams to the region and are devoting fairly unprecedented coverage of civilian casualty incidents from air strikes compared with American wars in recent years. It might seem like this is because of greater ease of access to the region, but it’s much more about public appetite, which is driven by who is doing the killing — Russia — and who is being killed, Ukrainians, with whom Westerners more easily empathize than civilians in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan. Journalists rarely went to rural battlefield areas of Afghanistan in recent years, often because of risk and a lack of access, but also because there was little interest from the public. So we are seeing things unfold in Ukraine in real time in a way that we did not see in other recent US conflicts.
Anand, so far, Russia has not yet used its air force as much as it did in Syria. Why do you think that is?
Russia is proceeding carefully in Ukraine because it is facing the opprobrium of the international community. The United States never faced that prospect, and similarly, Russia could act with impunity in Syria. That’s not to say that Russia hasn’t committed horrific crimes, but as Syria shows, it is capable of much greater violence.
The second reason is that Russia is facing a professional resistance, not a ragtag force taking up weapons against an occupying power. When the United States invaded Iraq, the Iraqi army collapsed in two months; for the next four years, ordinary people, like farmers and teachers without military training, were fighting the occupation. Russia is facing a different type of enemy in Ukraine. Ukraine has a modern air force and anti-aircraft weaponry, and it has been armed to the hilt by the West.
There is a symmetry to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia that has not been present in American conflicts.
Yes, air power has been a deciding factor in recent American wars. The American public tends to think that we are primarily using drones, but a great deal of the aircraft the United States uses to bomb is more traditional — some of which dates back to the Vietnam War, including B-52s, F-16s, and other traditional aircraft.
Most of the air power deployed in the most recent wars in Iraq and Syria was manned aircraft.
Yes. There were also drones, but they were usually used for surveillance. The United States has conducted more than 35,000 air strikes in Iraq and Syria since the anti–ISIS air war began in late 2014. Each of those “air strikes” has usually consisted of multiple actual bombings and engagements.
This strategy, as opposed to one that deploys large numbers of American troops, shifts the human cost of war to foreign populations. Those populations include civilians and the partner forces we ally ourselves with, who are on the ground and often dying in large numbers. Meanwhile, American soldiers died at rates far lower than previously in US history.
Because of this, Americans can ignore US wars more easily — and allow them to perpetuate for far longer.
In Afghanistan, many civilian deaths haven’t even made it into the United Nations figures. One reason is that rural areas are very hard to access. Most of the war has been fought in rural parts of Helmand, Kandahar, Nangarhar, and Kunar.
Take for example Band-e Timor in Kandahar, where I was recently reporting. The village had aligned itself with the new Afghan government in the early years after the US invasion. Up to fifty men from Band-e Timor had been picked up by American forces, stripped naked, taken to prison, and beaten. They were tortured. As a result, the village became pro-Taliban. It was a site of incredible amounts of violence from American soldiers in Afghanistan deployed to Kandahar and British soldiers deployed to Helmand. These civilian deaths have never been registered. People there were so isolated from the Afghan government that no one had death certificates.
What was the United Nations figure for how many people died in this area?
You can’t drill down a specific number for only this village. Instead, for years the United Nations, with some recent exceptions, has calculated that the Taliban killed far more civilians than the United States and its allied forces did in the war in Afghanistan. Yet I found so many civilians who had grotesque stories of night raids.
In Band-e Timor, Afghan soldiers rounded people up and forced them to pay bribes anywhere from $500 to $1,000 for their release. People could not afford that because they were so poor, so they tried to escape when the night raids happened. When they ran, the aircraft watching them targeted them, and many died as they were trying to flee. Those people don’t have death certificates either and wouldn’t meet the rubric that the United Nations would need to count them as civilians.
I saw how the village was radically affected. It was not simply that people were moving away. Even though villagers didn’t like the Taliban, they became far more willing to support it than the Afghan government put in place by the United States. Civilian deaths played a major factor in why the United States lost the Afghanistan war, in a way that many Americans do not understand and did not fully hear about.
How likely do you think it is that the United Nations’ claim that the Taliban killed more civilians than Americans is true?
I do not have the numbers to definitively say. I have not done a massive ground investigation across these different provinces.
Has the United Nations?
No, of course not. The United Nations requires a minimum number of official sources in order to include a death in its statistics. These people did not have death certificates. I had to verify deaths through interviews and tombstones in graveyards. These were people in remote villages who had no relationship to the Afghan government, the United Nations, or NGOs that counted deaths.
I was in Kandahar, but you were in Helmand. What did you find there?
As you obviously know, but readers might not, Helmand province is in southern Afghanistan. It’s been one of the most hotly contested parts of the country for the last fifteen years. In one enclave, I went house-to-house and counted how many people died from the conflict and the means by which they died. On average, people had lost almost a dozen family members to the war. The vast majority of those deaths were at the hands of the US or US-backed forces.
That does not mean that the Taliban wasn’t also killing people. They were largely doing that through roadside bombs, laying land mines that targeted US convoys that sometimes people would run over. But in this area, the Americans and their allies killed more people.
In Band-e Timor, I did a fifteen-household sample spread out across a village called Barang, and each family had lost about five civilian family members at the hands of US forces and their allies.
Perhaps we will never know the true toll that Afghans suffered with the American occupation.
Well, who would do this work of counting? We may not know the toll in Afghanistan, but you and I looked at this in Iraq. We collected a cluster-based sample of air strikes during the war against ISIS between 2014 and 2017. When we went door-to-door and house-to-house, we found that one in five air strikes resulted in a civilian death. When compared to the database that I built of all the press releases and the civilian death counts that the US military released, our numbers were thirty-one times higher. After doing statistical inference, the numbers came out to between 7,000 and 10,000 civilians killed, and this was back in 2017.
This was just during the war against ISIS in one part of Iraq — it did not even include the rest of the country or Syria.
Yes, and it was during the Obama administration.
Whatever the actual numbers are, we know for sure that far more people died than we were told.
It is difficult to challenge the official statistics of the United States because they rely on information considered classified to determine whether civilians have been killed. They consider the target of the attack and the basis for their intelligence a secret.
You can say, “I found this person. They are a civilian, and here is their account of what happened.” But the United States can respond, as it did for years during these wars, and say, “After considering x, y, and z, we have intelligence proving that they were a legitimate target.” Since September 11, the US response has been that it cannot release the intelligence that makes it think the civilian death rate is much lower than it seems to be.
For years, I have been requesting reports from the US government through the Freedom of Information Act. A key way in which the US military differs from the Russian military is that the US military claims to investigate or assess each allegation of civilian loss from the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
I sued the Pentagon for more than 2,800 of these assessments, and I received more than 5,000 pages in return. I compared what the US military concluded occurred with strike sites I was able to visit on the ground. Their understanding of what occurred was often wildly inaccurate. For example, they might have concluded that twenty-four civilians were killed, whereas the true number was more than four times that, and the target was not in fact what they believed it to be. I saw this occur again and again.
The reports show that the US military has extreme confidence in the intelligence it uses for the basis of its air strikes. They can believe that someone they are following or targeting is an ISIS threat even if that person is a civilian. Misidentification was a major factor in a lot of the civilian casualties described in the documents I obtained.
What they know about civilian death is deeply flawed. Beyond misidentification, they have often failed to detect the presence of civilians in the first place. The US military has an elaborate process that they go through before conducting an air strike. They boast that they are superior to other militaries around the world because of this process. Yet when I looked at these records, I repeatedly found that they could go through that process and still fail to detect the presence of civilians. There might be more than one hundred civilians in houses, and they might misidentify these civilians as targets.
Or there could be explosive weapons caches with secondary effects that they didn’t anticipate. This is what happened in Hawija, where air strikes killed as many as seventy civilians, according to their documents.
The United States is making a great effort to convince themselves that they’re not killing civilians.
A senior American official who had investigated civilian deaths for the US military in the past told me that this process was used to claim accountability, expand authority on the battlefield, and give greater legitimacy to risky actions, like deploying more weapons or conducting air strikes in dense, civilian-populated areas.
Someone else told me that the process has been used to insulate American service members from allegations of wrongdoing. It’s fascinating that, in those thousands of pages of documents, there was not one instance of wrongdoing or disciplinary action cited for anyone involved. The person I spoke to told me that the military’s process is about making air strikes appear as though they are a legitimate means of war that the United States is responsibly carrying out.
If the US military admitted to the number of civilians they’ve killed rather than lying about it, would that change things? Is it possible to fight a war and not kill civilians?
In a densely packed neighborhood, it’s extremely hard to use air power and not also inadvertently kill civilians.
Yes, the US military is not deliberately targeting hospitals. But they don’t want to know what the true toll is.
Let’s give an example here. Neil Prakash was an Australian ISIS recruiter. He was in Mosul, Iraq, and the United States targeted him. One report I read said that they believed they had killed him. They noted that four civilians were killed in the air strike, and they considered those deaths proportional to killing Neil Prakash. Now, I went to this site. I found some of the civilians who were injured and killed. One of them was a little boy with shrapnel in his spinal cord. He was confined to a wheelchair that his parents could barely afford. Down the street, a professor who was fixing his air-conditioning when the strike took place was killed. A few months after the strike, Prakash turned up alive and well, trying to cross the border from Syria to Turkey. He is sitting in Turkish prison now.
Another example: the US military thought it was targeting a weapons manufacturing facility. Even after seeing three children on the roof of the building, they decided that the death of those children would be proportional. They carried out that air strike. I went to the site of the air strike. Everyone in this community said that it was a civilian home and twelve people were killed. One little girl in that house survived. Another little girl next door is permanently disabled. The decision was made with the information that the US military had, and the civilian cost was considered proportional. Yet, as the grandmother of that lone surviving girl told me, there was no military advantage gained. All they did was kill children.
It shows that they don’t have the intelligence they say they do.
And yet they claim that the intelligence is precise and accurate. I was told by the military quite recently that people on the ground “lack access to classified intelligence.”
For argument’s sake, let’s say they have good intelligence. That intelligence does not mitigate the perniciousness of the way in which the laws of war are evoked by the United States to legitimize a war. Killing civilians is not necessarily a violation of the laws of war, nor is it necessarily a war crime.
For example, consider the cities of Aleppo and Raqqa in Syria. Parts of Aleppo were bombed to smithereens by the Russians. The Russians paid no heed to the laws of war and bombed hospitals and markets. The Syrian government did the same and slaughtered people.
The United States, on the other hand, had teams of lawyers. Its specialists vetted targets before most bombings in Raqqa, which was the capital of ISIS at the time. And yet Raqqa looks like an apocalyptic moonscape: when I visited, I saw people living in hovels or in the rubble. The United States adhered to these “laws of war,” while Russia did not, but the end result was almost identical.
I am not arguing that we should abandon the laws of war. Rather, this example points to the ways in which the laws of war are so imprecise. We can’t use them to judge the justice or injustice of warfare.
A senior official in the war against ISIS used to tell people that it was the most precise war in the history of warfare. Later he said, “Eventually, I stopped saying that this was the most precise bombing campaign in the history of warfare, because it doesn’t matter that it was, when Raqqa looks like Aleppo.”
This example shows how these powers invoke the laws of war to justify their wars. We should condemn the crimes and atrocities that Russia is committing in Ukraine. But we should never forget that, if we are not careful, the language of the laws of war can easily be used to justify crimes by our own government.
Do you think that coverage of American wars should be as critical as that of Russia’s war crimes, civilian casualties, and deliberate targeting of civilians, when the same net effects are happening?
Absolutely. At the end of the day, whether the United States is bombing ten houses in Raqqa and killing twenty people, while the Russians are bombing one house and killing twenty people, the destruction and human suffering is equivalent.
If the American public had paid more attention to the war in Afghanistan and understood the civilian casualties that were occurring, do you think the United States would have ended the war earlier?
I’m not convinced that would have been enough to end the war. For example, three factors led to the end of the Vietnam War. The first and most important factor was the strength of the Vietnamese resistance against the American invasion. The second was the resistance of soldiers within the armed forces. The third was the antiwar movement in the United States.
Most of these processes did not exist in the wars against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States was not taking many casualties in Afghanistan. Nor was it facing strong domestic opposition to the war. It could have continued for another decade, but for reasons that have nothing to do with Afghanistan, it decided to withdraw. In part, these reasons have to do with America-first views in the United States and because the United States is shifting toward confronting Russia and China. The end of war in Afghanistan might be a positive development, but it’s hard to claim it as a victory.