Today’s story by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal in the New York Times Magazine should be required reading for all those involved in Operation Inherent Resolve, which the Pentagon often refers to as the most precise air campaign in history.
It’s the story of one Iraqi, Basim Razzo, who lost his family and home to a US air strike on the night of Sept 20, 2015. He was lying in bed next to his wife, Mayada, when an American aircraft dropped two munitions directly on his and his brother’s house next door. His wife, daughter, nephew, and brother were all killed. Based on videos posted to its YouTube channel, the American-led coalition said the strike “Destroys Daesh VBIED Facility Near Mosul, Iraq 20 Sept 2015,” and until Basim petitioned the US government for answers, it considered his family members legitimate kills in the war against ISIS.
But this article is also a story of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed and injured by air strikes. It’s a story about their families left grasping for answers in the face of US military bureaucracy. And it’s a story about how “the most precise air campaigns in military history,” as a Central Command spokesperson described it, isn’t.
Khan and Gopal were exhaustive in their research, and the US military could take some lessons in how to conduct on-the-ground investigations. They describe their reporting like this:
Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. Between April 2016 and June 2017, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes across northern Iraq, not long after ISIS was evicted from them. We toured the wreckage; we interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors, family members, intelligence informants and local officials; we photographed bomb fragments, scoured local news sources, identified ISIS targets in the vicinity and mapped the destruction through satellite imagery. We also visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition directs the air campaign. There, we were given access to the main operations floor and interviewed senior commanders, intelligence officials, legal advisers and civilian-casualty assessment experts. We provided their analysts with the coordinates and date ranges of every airstrike — 103 in all — in three ISIS-controlled areas and examined their responses. The result is the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since this latest military action began in 2014.
We here at Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) are obviously dismayed by the findings of this report. We’ve spent a decade working with the US military to better understand how civilian harm occurs and to incorporate those lessons into various stages of planning operations so civilians are better protected—including through better investigations and record keeping. There has been some success in places like Afghanistan, but it is obvious much work remains. We will continue to call on militaries and governments to place civilian protection at the center of their planning.