On the evening of March 5, 2016, 21 members of the extended Zeidan family got together for dinner in the northern Iraqi city of West Mosul. A U.S. airstrike killed all of them.
The following month, a strike in East Mosul killed four civilians and sent shrapnel into the spinal cord of a boy named Hassan Aleiwi Muhammad Sultan, partially paralyzing him.
The next year in Mosul, Kareema Khalid Suleiman and 33 members of her family gathered in what they hoped was a safe place during fighting between the U.S. and ISIS. An airstrike killed everybody in the house but Suleiman, who climbed out from the rubble.
Airstrikes — from drones or piloted planes — have been the central military tactic that the United States has used in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other recent conflicts. And U.S. officials often trumpet their advantages. Airstrikes have allowed the U.S. to kill terrorists and other enemies with minimal civilian casualties and without putting American troops in danger, the officials claim.
These arguments have some truth to them. Airstrikes helped the U.S. defeat ISIS in several places, including the Mosul area. But it has also become clear that American officials have exaggerated the benefits of airstrikes and substantially underplayed their downsides, starting with the horror of civilian casualties.
This weekend, The Times published an investigation — written by Azmat Khan, a contributing writer at The Times Magazine — of the systemic failures with the military’s use of airstrikes. The magazine has now published a second article by Azmat, focusing on the human toll of those failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
“If it weren’t for her clothes, I wouldn’t have even known it was her,” Ali Younes Mohammed Sultan told Azmat, describing his daughter, who was one of the 21 members of the Zeidan family killed during their dinner. “She was just pieces of meat. I recognized her only because she was wearing the purple dress that I bought for her a few days before. It’s indescribable.”
Azmat’s work is an astonishing feat of reporting, as her editor, Luke Mitchell, told me. She spent much of the past five years obtaining military documents and traveling through Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to interview witnesses and visit 60 different bomb sites.
Wars inevitably involve death, including civilian death, as advocates of air warfare — across the Biden, Trump, Obama and George W. Bush administrations — often point out. These officials argue that the civilian toll from airstrikes is still less than the toll wrought by tanks rumbling through neighborhoods or by airplanes carpet-bombing cities.
Yet Azmat’s reporting has exposed serious problems with the American use of airstrikes:
A rush to confirm targets, ignoring evidence that they may involve significant civilian casualties — or may not even be military targets.
Before the attack that killed the Zeidan family, one U.S. official warned that children and their families most likely lived near the target; she was ignored. As Azmat writes, “Confirmation bias ran rampant.”
An undercounting of civilian deaths. In some cases, the toll was nearly double that acknowledged by the military. Military documents claim that 27 percent of airstrikes with civilian casualties include children among the toll; The Times’s reporting suggests it is 62 percent.
Lack of apologies or compensation after mistakes. One example: The U.S. never contacted the survivors of the attack that partially paralyzed the boy in East Mosul, and his family struggles to afford his wheelchair.
Lack of accountability for mistakes. The military frequently absolves its members of wrongdoing. Last week, the Pentagon said that no troops would be punished for an August drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed 10 civilians, including seven children.
Ultimately, Azmat argues that the U.S. approach to airstrikes is so flawed that it may undermine American security — at mortal cost to others — rather than protect it. She writes:
What I saw after studying them was not a series of tragic errors but a pattern of impunity: of a failure to detect civilians, to investigate on the ground, to identify causes and lessons learned, to discipline anyone or find wrongdoing that would prevent these recurring problems from happening again. It was a system that seemed to function almost by design to not only mask the true toll of American airstrikes but also legitimize their expanded use.