In recent decades, the United States has radically changed its approach to warfare, replacing American troops on the ground with an arsenal of aircraft guided by controllers sitting at computers, often thousands of miles away. That change reached full force in the final years of the Obama administration, amid the deeply unpopularity of the Forever Wars that claimed the lives of more than 6,000 American service members. Fewer American soldiers on the ground meant fewer American deaths, which meant fewer congressional hearings, or lack thereof, about the progress of the wars. It also meant fewer journalists paying attention to the effects of the war effort on the local civilian population. If America can target and kill the right people while being as careful as possible not to harm the wrong people, they will have no reason to worry on the domestic front.
From Iraq and Syria to Somalia and Afghanistan, air power allowed coalition forces to take territory from ISIS and the Taliban, and drone strikes provided a means to contain al Qaeda, al Shabaab and Boko Haram in areas where which were not declared official battlefields. Military officers touted the accuracy of these operations, which were based on meticulously gathered intelligence, technical sorcery, carefully crafted bureaucratic constraints, and exceptional restraint. As of April 2016, the Pentagon was reporting that 25,000 ISIS fighters had been killed in US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, while only 21 civilians were killed. “With our extraordinary technology,” President Barack Obama said that year, “we are conducting the most accurate aerial campaign in history.”
At the time, I had just completed an investigation into the US government’s claims about the schools it built in Afghanistan, and I knew that there was often a gap between what the authorities said and the reality on the ground. The civilian casualties inflicted by the coalition seemed hard to believe. So I decided to visit some of the air raid sites and see what I could find.
In August 2016, coalition forces struck Qairah, a suburb about 45 miles south of Mosul, with several attacks, freeing it from ISIS control, and in the immediate aftermath, the Pentagon acknowledged not a single civilian death. . I reached Kaira a month after the strike ended. The air around the city was still thick with black smoke – ISIS fighters had set fire to some oil wells before retreating north towards Mosul. At the center of Qaira, destruction was complete. Almost every major building or significant part of the city’s infrastructure was affected – bridges, water sanitation plants, railway stations, furniture markets, bazaars. In the remains of the sloping football stadium in Kaira, I saw children using sheets of metal as sledges. The residential area was also destroyed: one or two structures on each block were reduced to rubble.
I stopped in front of a broken house to talk to some local people. They knew the family that lived there. It was the residence of Ali Khalaf al-Wardi and his family, he told me, as he described what had happened. As Iraqi forces headed for Kaira, fleeing ISIS fighters left piles of explosives around the city; Ali, believing that one of those caches was in the house next door, immediately began packing to leave for his family. But they did not move quickly. A Coalition airstrike hit a neighbor’s house, knocking down the Verdi family home. Six civilians were killed, including Ali; her 5-year-old son, Kutada; his 14-year-old daughter Anas; and their 18-year-old daughter Ghofran.
After that I went to nine other air raid sites in Kaira. All were in residential areas. Locals told me that it rained daily in the air raids, especially in the middle of the city. These attacks were so frequent that families often slept in shifts in the event of a bombing. 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 had been targeted.
It was clear from just one reporting visit that something was amiss in the Coalition’s aerial combat. I worked closely 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 Kaira. Over the ensuing months, I returned again and again, verifying what I had learned. I expanded my research area to include the city of Shura and the Aden district of eastern Mosul. I identified impact sites, learned to distinguish airstrikes from other strikes, interviewed loved ones and survivors, collected names and photos of the dead, analyzed satellite imagery and scoured social media. Our survey covered 103 strike sites, and what we found was alarming: one in five bombings killed a civilian, 31 times more than the coalition claimed at the time. Furthermore, in about half of the attacks that killed civilians, we could not find any ISIS targets nearby. The attacks appear 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 the strike. I had military sources, and in some cases I was able to interview local informers on the ground. But from what these sources would tell me, my ability to decipher pre-strike intelligence was hampered.
However, soon enough, I got a deeper understanding of the targeting process. On one of my visits, I met an Iraqi man named Basim Razzo, who survived an attack on his eastern Mosul home in 2015 that killed his wife, his daughter, his brother and his nephew. The US intelligence had identified Rajjo’s house as a car-bomb factory. Rajjo wanted to know why his family was targeted so precisely, and wanted to clear his name. After learning of his case, I filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for a civilian casualty assessment related to this strike. To expedite the process, which can sometimes take years, I argued in my request that Rajjo was at risk of imminent harm, as survivors of American bombings could be suspected of ties to enemy groups. Within months, I had a dozen partially modified pages.