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U.S. airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians, NYT Magazine investigation finds


Drone strikes are supposed to be precise - surgical is the word often used - to target terrorists and threats and avoid killing innocent civilians. But a deep investigation by the New York Times Magazine finds that U.S. airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians - including small children - in places that include Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Investigative reporter Azmat Khan has spent the last five years reporting on U.S. military drone operations and airstrikes and civilian casualties and joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

AZMAT KHAN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The use of drone strikes and air support really increased considerably during the Obama administration and then continued in the Trump and Biden administrations. Please remind us why President Obama and others decided to emphasize drone strikes and air support.

KHAN: Absolutely. So this really came out of the discontent many Americans felt for what are now often described as the forever wars. And President Obama, you know, after the surge - which really didn't turn things around in Afghanistan in the way that was expected as we sort of transitioned towards leaving the country - felt that there was still a need to maintain a presence there. But we didn't want troops on the ground. And the way that we did that was often through air support - through airstrikes against not only the Taliban but ISIS, as well as air support for Iraqi and Afghan partners - Syrian partners - on the ground as they fought these groups.

SIMON: Yeah. Tell us some of some of what you found that - well, that stays with you in particular.

KHAN: You know, one particular memory that has stayed with me was visiting this hamlet in northern Syria called Tokhar, where nearly 200 people had sort of been sheltering in these houses during the worst of fighting and woke up around 3 a.m. one night in July of 2016 to these homes crumbling on top of them. And while the United States admitted that between seven and 24 civilians were killed in the document I obtained about the investigation into that airstrike, what I found on the ground was at least 120 civilians had died. You know, what I did was I - through the Freedom of Information Act, I got more than 1,500 assessments that the military had conducted into claims of civilian casualties, most of which they deemed noncredible. And one of the largest patterns I found was that they had failed often to detect the presence of civilians before an airstrike.

SIMON: That's an intelligence failure.

KHAN: Yes, that's an intelligence failure. I also found the misidentification of targets. You know, in one of these documents, they described a strike on what was believed to be a chemical weapons facility. And everyone seemed to agree with it, with the exception of, you know, a USAID official who happened to be in the room during the validation process on March 2 of 2016 for that airstrike and said, look, the children that we saw playing near this structure - you have classified them as, you know, what are known as transients - just passing along. But I think that they live, you know, near that target structure because based on what I know about ground realities, about cultural context, it's unlikely that, in that environment, parents would let their children veer far from home and play like this. And, you know, the military determined that, look, if we conduct this airstrike at night, we're mitigating the potential for hurting them because they won't be there. And they carried it out. And I met that family. And 21 people died - many of them children.

SIMON: The military is, I think I can fairly say, proud of all the checks that they have in place, aren't they?

KHAN: Yes. So, in fact, you know, anyone who reads this investigation can easily find the military responses to the questions that we asked. They weren't able to answer everything in terms of, you know, incident-specific remarks. But they did reply to six questions overall. And what they said was that, you know, they take great care, that every single loss of life is something that is regretted and that they take cares that their enemies don't. They also say that, you know, they would disagree with this as a system of impunity. They see this as a model of accountability. Whereas the reporting showed that when you look at these documents and the breakdowns of them, only in two instances in the documents do they show them interviewing survivors and eyewitnesses. And certainly, those lessons learned were never studied in aggregate like this. So it's hard to look at this and to know that they have far more of an ability than I do, or that an organization like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty does, to go and visit these sites and investigate themselves.

SIMON: But is the U.S. military only right when they point out that ISIS and the Taliban and other opponents are absolutely pitiless and take no precautions whatsoever, and all of these losses that you have so capably described are terrible and tragic and regrettable, but this is the fog of war?

KHAN: So a lot of scholars of international humanitarian law will tell you that it's not just about how the enemy responds that, you know, requires the United States to follow or take care towards the loss of civilian life. And if you look at the piece, you know, it's really measuring the United States against some of its own claims about the reasonable precautions it takes and the information it has and the intelligence level that they have and measures whether that stacks up with the reality, right? So when they say that, you know, this may be proportional, does that proportionality assessment really ring true if they failed to detect the presence of civilians? So I understand arguments about fog of war. I understand that decisions are made momentarily. But the problem here, according to this reporting, is that the military has not made these efforts to study these in depth - to visit on the ground to really even determine, well, what did we do wrong, and how can we learn from them?

SIMON: Azmat Khan is an investigative reporter for the New York Times Magazine. Thank you so much for being with us.

KHAN: Thank you so much for having me - appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.