The Human Toll of America’s Air Wars


“Out of this world technology”

It has been increasingly common in recent decades for the United States to conduct its military operations from the comfort of a command centre hundreds of miles distant from the battlefield. These changes peaked in the closing years of the Obama administration, during which time the wars that had taken the lives of over 6,000 American service personnel had become increasingly unpopular. Because there were fewer American dead, there were less congressional hearings about the success of the wars or lack thereof. It also meant that less attention was paid to the effects of the war effort on the civilian population in the immediate area. ‘ Those back home would have less reason to worry if the United States could accurately target and kill the appropriate people while taking the greatest possible care not to injure the wrong ones.

From Iraq and Syria to Somalia and Afghanistan, air power allowed coalition forces to capture territory from ISIS and the Taliban, while drone attacks gave a mechanism to confront Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, and Boko Haram in places that were not deemed official battlefields.

Military officials praised the campaigns’ precision, based on methodically obtained intelligence, technological brilliance, meticulously designed bureaucratic barriers, and incredible restraint.. 25,000 ISIS fighters had been killed by American bombings in Iraq and Syria by April 2016, according to the Pentagon, but only 21 civilians had been slain. “We’re conducting the most precise air campaign in history,” President Barack Obama declared at the time, citing his administration’s “amazing technology.”

Previously, I had done an inquiry into the US government’s statements regarding the schools it had built in Afghanistan, and I was aware that there was often a discrepancy between what authorities said and what was actually taking place. The coalition’s estimate of civilian deaths sounded implausible. As a result, I made plans to visit the locations of a few airstrikes in an effort to learn more.

Qaiyara, an ISIS-controlled suburb 45 miles from Mosul, was liberated by coalition forces in August 2016 with many airstrikes; the Pentagon did not recognise any civilian deaths in the early aftermath. When I arrived in Qaiyara, the strikes had just ended a little over a month before. ISIS fighters had set some oil wells ablaze before fleeing toward Mosul, so the town’s air was still thick with black smoke. It was utter devastation in Qaiyara’s heartland. Bridges, a sewage treatment plant, a railroad station, a furniture market, and a bazaar were among the many notable structures that had been damaged. I noticed children using metal sheets as sleds at the ruins of Qaiyara’s sloped soccer stadium. The residential area had also been decimated, with a few homes reduced to ruins on each block.

In front of a demolished house, I struck into a conversation with a few residents. They had a personal connection to the previous residents. They told me that this was the home of Ali Khalaf al-Wardi and his family, as they described what transpired.. He instantly began packing up his family because he believed that one of the bomb-laden houses next door was a safe haven for ISIS fugitives from Qaiyara, where Iraqi troops were advancing. However, they were unable to proceed at a sufficient pace. The Wardi family’s home was destroyed when a coalition airstrike hit the property next door. Ali, his 5-year-old son Qutada, his 14-year-old daughter Enaas, and his 18-year-old daughter Ghofran were among the six civilians killed.

This was followed by nine additional airstrikes in Qaiyara. All of them were located in neighbourhoods with a high concentration of families. In the town’s centre, residents informed me that daily airstrikes had fallen. Families sometimes slept in shifts in case of an attack due to the frequency of these bombings. At least 29 persons were killed in civilian casualties at five of the places I visited. In several cases, ISIS had already evacuated the neighbouring residences that had been targeted by the attacks.

The coalition’s air war was clearly malfunctioning after just one reporting trip. Together with journalist and statistician Anand Gopal, we devised a strategy for systematically investigating airstrikes in Qaiyara from the ground up. After that, I went back several times to make sure everything I had learnt was accurate. I added Shura and the Aden district of East Mosul to my research scope. Aside from identifying hit areas, I learned how to distinguish airstrikes from other attacks, spoke to loved ones, collected names and photos of the dead, and explored social media for information.

A total of 103 striking sites were included in our survey, and our findings were sobering: As many as 31 times as many civilians were killed in the bombs compared to the coalition’s claims. In addition, we found no clear ISIS target nearby in roughly half of the strikes that killed civilians. Poor or out-of-date intelligence appears to have led to the attacks. Certainly, we were constrained in our knowledge of the target of a strike at the time. Occasionally, I was able to interview local informants on the ground, thanks to military sources. However, I was limited in my capacity to determine pre-strike intelligence by the information that I could get from these sources.

In time, however, I got a better understanding of how the system works. An Iraqi man named Basim Razzo was one of the survivors of a 2015 airstrike that murdered his wife, daughter, brother, and nephew in East Mosul. During one of my trips, I met him. The Razzo residence had been recognised by U.S. intelligence as a car-bomb manufacturing plant.

When Razzo’s family was targeted so meticulously, he was determined to uncover why and clear his name. To find out how many civilians were killed in this strike, I made a FOIA request. There is a risk of impending harm to Razzo because the survivors of U.S. bombings may fall under suspicion for affiliations to hostile groups, I argued in my appeal. For the first time, I had a dozen pages that were just partially redacted.