The human toll of American air wars

3. “An extraordinary technology” Over the past several decades, the United States has fundamentally transformed its approach to warfare,...


Over the past several decades, the United States has fundamentally transformed its approach to warfare, replacing American troops on the ground with an arsenal of planes manned by controllers sitting in front of computers, often thousands of miles away. This transformation reached its full force in the final years of the Obama administration, amid the growing unpopularity of the eternal wars that claimed the lives of more than 6,000 US military personnel. Fewer American troops on the ground meant fewer American deaths, which meant fewer Congressional hearings on the progression of wars, or their absence. It also meant fewer journalists paying attention to the impacts of the war effort on the local civilian population. If America could target and kill the right people with precision while taking the greatest possible care not to harm the wrong ones, then those on the home front would have little cause for concern.

From Iraq and Syria to Somalia and Afghanistan, air power has enabled coalition forces to take territory from ISIS and the Taliban, and drone strikes have provided a means of ” engage Al-Qaeda, Al Shabab and Boko Haram in areas not declared as official battlefields. Military officials have touted the precision of these campaigns, based on meticulously assembled intelligence, technological magic, carefully crafted bureaucratic hurdles, and extraordinary restraint. In April 2016, the Pentagon reported that US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria had killed 25,000 ISIS fighters, resulting in the deaths of only 21 civilians. “With our extraordinary technology,” President Barack Obama said that year, “we are conducting the most precise air campaign in history.”

At the time, I had just completed an investigation into the U.S. government’s allegations about the schools it had built in Afghanistan, and I knew there was often a discrepancy between what officials say and the reality of the situation. ground. The number of civilian casualties given by the coalition seemed hard to believe. So I decided to go to the sites of some airstrikes and see what I could find.

In August 2016, coalition forces hit Qaiyara, a suburb about 75 km south of Mosul, with multiple strikes, freeing it from ISIS control, and immediately afterwards the Pentagon did not recognize any civil death. I arrived in Qaiyara a little over a month after the end of the strikes. The air around the city was still thick with black smoke – ISIS fighters set oil wells on fire before retreating north towards Mosul. In the center of Qaiyara, the destruction was absolute. Almost all the large buildings or infrastructures in the city had been affected: the bridges, the water purification plant, the train station, the furniture market, the bazaar. On the ruins of the sloping Qaiyara football stadium, I saw children using metal sheets as sleds. The residential area was also devastated: on each island, one or two structures had been reduced to ruins.

I stopped to talk to locals outside a destroyed house. They knew the family who lived there. It was the residence of Ali Khalaf al-Wardi and his family, they told me, as they explained what had happened. As the Iraqi army advanced towards Qaiyara, fleeing ISIS fighters left explosives caches around the city; Ali, believing that one of these caches was in the house next door, immediately started packing his family to leave. But they weren’t going fast enough. A coalition airstrike hit the neighbor’s house, bringing down the Wardi family’s house. Six civilians were killed, including Ali; his 5-year-old son, Qutada; his 14-year-old daughter, Enaas; and his 18-year-old daughter, Ghofran.

After that, I visited the sites of nine more airstrikes in Qaiyara. All were in residential areas. Residents told me that the airstrikes had rained daily, especially in the center of town. These strikes were so continuous that families frequently slept in shifts in the event of a bomb attack. At least five of the sites I visited had civilian casualties, with at least 29 people killed. In many cases, ISIS had already evacuated nearby homes that were the targets.

It was clear from just one reporting trip that there was something wrong with coalition air warfare. I teamed up with Anand Gopal, a journalist with a background in statistical research, and together we devised a plan to conduct a systematic ground investigation into the airstrikes in Qaiyara. In the months that followed, I went back again and again, checking out what I had learned. I broadened my research area to include the city of Shura and the district of Aden east of Mosul. I identified the sites of impact, learned to distinguish airstrikes from other attacks, interviewed relatives and survivors, collected names and photographs of the dead, analyzed satellite images and browsed social media. Our survey expanded to include 103 strike sites, and what we found is sobering: One in five bombings killed civilians, a rate 31 times the coalition claimed. the time. Additionally, in about half of the strikes that killed civilians, we found no visible IS targets nearby. The strikes appeared to have been based on poor or outdated intelligence. It is true that at that time we were limited in what we could know about the intended target of a strike. I had military sources and in some cases was able to interview local informants in the field. But my ability to discern intelligence before the strike was limited by what these sources would tell me.

Soon, however, I gained a better understanding of the targeting process. On one of my trips, I met an Iraqi named Basim Razzo, who survived a 2015 strike on his home in eastern Mosul that killed his wife, daughter, brother and nephew. US intelligence had identified the Razzo house as a car bomb factory. Razzo desperately wanted to know why his family had been targeted so specifically and to clear his name. After learning of his case, I filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the assessment of civilian casualties related to this strike. To speed up the process, which can sometimes take years, I argued in my request that there was a risk of imminent harm to Razzo, as survivors of the US bombings may be suspected of having links to enemy groups. . In a few months, I had a dozen partially written pages.

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Newsrust - US Top News: The human toll of American air wars
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