Matt Katz: By the end of 2014, in the final years of the Obama Administration, president Obama declared America's ground war against ISIS essentially done. Instead, the administration traded boots on the ground for aircraft and precision bombs that could be directed by controllers sitting at computers, often thousands of miles away, but an extraordinary New York Times investigation published over the weekend found that many of those airstrikes were often imprecise. The Times obtained more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties from a hidden Pentagon archive of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria between September 2014 and January 2018. Many of these casualties were not previously made public and show how flawed intelligence and rush targeting led to thousands of civilian deaths, many of them children.
The Times analysis also found hundreds of more civilian deaths had gone uncounted and were not included in the Pentagon documents. Azmat Khan, an investigative reporter at the New York Times Magazine has spent the past five years traveling through Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, investigating the aftermath of air campaigns and speaking with survivors. Welcome to the show, Azmat.
Azmat Khan: Thank you for having me.
Matt Katz: Can you start by just giving us an overview of how these operations work? Where does the intelligence come from to locate the targets? How are the bombs deployed? Where are the American soldiers situated when they're running these operations?
Azmat Khan: The intelligence can really come from one of two different ways. One is, it's pre-planned, they've been informed of a target, something that is important, but not necessarily extremely urgent. They have the time to vet it. Those are known as deliberate strikes. They're run through a pretty rigorous vetting process. Then the other kind of airstrike that happens is a dynamic strike. It is sometimes known as there's a target of opportunity, or quick silver intelligence that appears, or an imminent threat. That doesn't go through as many levels of vetting, but it is still vetted on some level.
Because there are these two different kinds, they can be executed in very different ways. Usually the latter category is based on some imminent threat to friendly forces with few Americans on the ground. We're generally talking about our Iraqi or Syrian defense forces partners who maybe are facing some threat. You might see it in footage, and it's developed quite quickly, while watching the scene of the battle, or a deliberate strike. It might be something that comes to you whether that's through a tip on the ground, whether that is something that you're observing and you start to see a pattern over time. Then you make the decision, or at least this coalition led by the United States in Iraq and Syria makes a decision based on many different kinds of intelligence that they might be taking in.
Matt Katz: They make a decision. Then who is actually dropping the bomb? Who is firing these weapons?
Azmat Khan: It depends. Most of the time it's the United States that's operating the aircraft and is dropping the bomb. Sometimes the United States will do the vetting and will be involved in that pre-planning. It might be a US partner in that coalition, for example, the Netherlands, that actually does the dropping or maybe flying the aircraft on a particular occasion, but the overwhelming majority are both planned and conducted by the United States. On occasion some of our partners would be the ones doing that, but almost every single strike is involved with US leaders in some different capacity.
Matt Katz: What about drones? Are there also drones that are dropping these weapons?
Azmat Khan: Sometimes. I think that there's a prevailing belief that these kinds of strikes today are carried out by drones all the time. Drones, I think, they're certainly used for surveillance purposes, they can be equipped with weapons and used for the purposes of firing, but sometimes there are aircraft that have been in our arsenal for quite a while, like the B-52, the kind of aircraft that we've used in the past that maybe people don't associate with US airpower today because of the rise of the idea of the drone.
Matt Katz: It's a amazing how imprecise so many of these strikes are, even though we were promised that they were precision operations. You write that "an adult male associated with ISIS was actually an elderly female. A man with a weapon on his left shoulder actually had no weapon. A heavy object being dragged into a building with is in fact a child." Why was the military so often wrong?
Azmat Khan: This is a problem in the military they call misidentification or conflating somebody who is a civilian as an enemy. A lot of times, as I think people watched unfold during the Kabul airstrike earlier this year, the leading reason is confirmation bias. When you're told that you should vet this target, that this is a weapon's factory, you tend to start to see everything around it as associated with that. All of a sudden, this elderly woman may look like an ISIS fighter because that's who you anticipate to be around that facility, or a man who might be holding a shovel may look to them like he's holding an RPG. These are often seen as through that prism.
There are individuals who were watching footage and saw civilians, and it was easily recognizable to some of the reviewers after the fact that those were civilians, but it's not apparent that the people watching in real time knew that this group of people gathered on the sidewalk with civilians because they were so convinced that what they believed was a car bomb, that they had been tracking was a car bomb, that they could not reconcile the idea that this car would stop and talk to individuals who were civilians. They were still convinced that those were enemies. That happens a great deal when people are watching just through this footage and they don't really have a sense of what reality is like on the ground.
Matt Katz: Can you give us a little idea about how you gathered all this information, what the process was like?
Azmat Khan: Yes. This has been an intense process over many years, but it really began in 2016 as the war against ISIS was being fought, as territory was being retaken. I found myself watching these numbers roll out from the US military about how many tens of thousands of ISIS fighters they were claiming to have killed, and yet at the time they were only admitting maybe not even two dozen civilian deaths. Those numbers just didn't add up to me.
I had recently finished in investigation analyzing or looking at US-funded schools in Afghanistan and claims around those, where I'd done a ground sample. I thought, "Could I do something similar?" I just returned from a different war zone where I saw an incredible divergence between what the US military and US leaders had claimed about their successes in that war, and then what happened when I did a ground sample and I went looking at those schools. I thought, "Can I do this with airstrikes?" I began in Iraq in a town called Qayara.
I think on my very first trip what I found in going to 10 airstrikes that first time I went, five of them involved civilian casualties, which was a rate that was so different than what the military had been claiming. I spent the next two years almost expanding a sample, really coming back again and again to Iraq to basically look at a sample of 103 airstrikes, both those that resulted in civilian casualties and those that didn't. What my co-author at the time and I concluded was that one in five of these coalition airstrikes in Iraq had resulted in a civilian death, which was 31 times higher than what the government was claiming at the time.
The problem with that analysis for me was that I didn't really have a lot of clarity on the government was necessarily targeting, what their intelligence was. In the case of a main character in that story at the time, it was called The Uncounted and it was also in the New York Times Magazine, I was able to obtain, through the Freedom of Information Act, the record of what they assessed in this man whose name is Basim Razzo's case, who lost his wife, his daughter, his brother, and his nephew. It was just a document that was filled with assessments of confirmation bias, where essentially almost everything this family did from opening the gates to even-- [sound cut]
Because of that, I just really wanted to know how often this happens, what these other assessments for not pre-planned strikes for these dynamic strikes looked like when there was even less time to vet a target. I started filing more requests, and I obtained more than 1,300 of them, and analyze them. Then in addition to looking at the trends within them, as I just mentioned, a military document can only tell you so much. I knew I needed to try to visit as many of these cases, these documents that I had, and look at them on the ground to try to compare. That's where a lot of the trends that we've been talking about really came out.
Matt Katz: You spoke to victims and people who lost loved ones and documented their stories in these articles?
Azmat Khan: Yes. That's a crucial part of my process. Unfortunately, it is not a part of the military's process when they're assessing civilian casualties. I would interview people on the ground, survivors, loved ones, relatives, people who wanted to share their stories. I would do everything I could to verify and fact-check what people told me, whether that was analyzing dates and satellite imagery, whether it was interviewing many others who lived in the area to figure out where ISIS had functioned, if there was an ISIS target that was nearby, all different things to really put that in context.
I often get asked these questions, "How do you know that they're not lying to you or how do you know that they weren't ISIS?" I have to meet a very high level to show that in my work, but one thing that frustrates me is that I don't think our military has been held to that same standard. When they claim to have intelligence that essentially authorizes someone's death, their targeting, that often remains classified, and that's part of why getting these documents has been such an effort over many years.
It really took a while to do this along with help for many others, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which represented me in my lawsuit against the department of defense, which really didn't want to give up these records and certainly not in their totality. That tells you a great deal about what transparency the military offers us, and the sources they even take in to try to vet and trust to understand the impacts of their own operations.
Matt Katz: We've got just a few seconds left, but I was wondering, since your bombshell reporting came out, have you heard from officials in the Obama or Trump administrations expressing any regrets? Are there national security officials in the Biden administration who are pledging to somehow improve or even curtail these operations going forward? Any significant reaction from the government?
Azmat Khan: That's a good question. I do know that parts of the military had been in the process of developing a new civilian casualty policy, actually as a result of that article that I mentioned earlier, The Uncounted, from several years ago. They were intending to make that policy public in the near future. I don't know what is happening with that. I have not heard much, to be honest with you, from US officials, the way I have in the past immediately after some of these things.
I think this is so recent, it came out on a weekend, and it's almost before the holidays. I'm not sure what more I'll be hearing, but it was a vast amount of information to take in. To be really honest with you, even in the procurement of these records, it took the DOD long time to get all of them. They were stored in all of these different places, to even provide them to my lawyers. My sense is that they're probably trying to recall all the records right now themselves.
Matt Katz: Azmat Khan is an investigative reporter at the New York Times Magazine. Azmat, thank you so much for this incredible piece of journalism and for talking about it with thought on The Takeaway.
Azmat Khan: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
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