U.S. officials repeatedly tout the bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq as the most precise in history, but a new investigative article in the New York Times Magazine, co-authored by Anand Gopal, tells a different story
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. U.S. officials have repeatedly touted the bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq as the most precise in history. CHARLES Q. BROWN JR.: We’re conducting the most precise air campaign in history. We’re able to attrit Daesh and its capabilities, anytime, and anywhere. STEPHEN J. TOWNSEND: I would argue that this is, I believe, the most precise campaign in the history of warfare. We’ve gone to extraordinary measures to safeguard civilian lives. BRETT MCGURK: This has been the most precise air campaign in history. I mean, I think it’ll be studied in the future and people will repeat, “The most precise air campaign in history,” and all of our airstrikes go through a common structure in terms of validating the targets and it is really moving at an incredible clip. AARON MATÉ: Well, a new investigation tells a very different story. The journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal spent 18 months reporting on the civilian death toll from U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. They found that the actual toll is at least 31 times higher than U.S. officials have acknowledged. The story in the New York Times Magazine is called “The Uncounted,” and I’m joined now by one of its co-authors, Anand Gopal, journalist, author of the book, “No Good Men Among the Living.” Anand, welcome. Let’s start with the toll itself. The U.S. number that we’ve been given in Iraq is 89 deaths of civilian in 14,000 strikes. How did you find a number that is at least a few thousand more than that? ANAND GOPAL: Well, we decided to try to see how this number looks on the ground by going to as many airstrike sites as possible. We picked three different parts of the country which were, broadly speaking, representative of the types of places that ISIS have controlled. So, more major urban centers, we picked a neighborhood in Mosul, we picked a small provincial town, and we picked a place that was largely abandoned. Overall, we visited 103 airstrike sites, and went to each one, and tried to determine who was killed, who was targeted, and what were the consequences of it. AARON MATÉ: What did you find? ANAND GOPAL: We found that in fact, one in five of the airstrikes that we investigated had caused civilian deaths. In some towns, for example, the town of Qayyarah, over two years, 43 civilians were killed in 40 strikes overall. In that same period, ISIS had executed 18 civilians, so in fact, in some places the U.S.-led coalition has actually killed more civilians than ISIS. AARON MATÉ: Right, and so what accounted for the discrepancy between the official figure and the actual figure that you were able to find? Which probably, as you suggest in your piece, is even an under count so far. ANAND GOPAL: Yeah. When the coalition admits to a civilian death, it actually happens after an extraordinarily high threshold in which somebody has to prove that they’re a civilian. Most of the reports that end up getting acknowledged as civilian deaths come actually internally generated from the coalition itself. For example, a pilot drops a bomb and after he drops a bomb, he sees a civilian vehicle enter the aperture. That’s how most of the reporting gets done, and so as you might guess, very rarely do they actually find cases that kill civilians ’cause they’re looking at this from an altitude. When human rights organizations or media groups bring allegations to the coalition, they’re almost always dismissed, and the coalition usually says, “Oh, we didn’t conduct any operations in that area, we didn’t have any aircraft flying in that area.” What we did is go on the ground and actually try to talk to the victims, talk to the survivors, and that’s what told such a different story. AARON MATÉ: Right, and one of those victims is a man named Basim Razzo. Can you tell us his story? ANAND GOPAL: Basim, he’s an engineer and he actually lived in the U.S. He lived in Michigan with his wife, Mayada, for a number of years. He moved back to Iraq in the late ’80s, and he witnessed his country — a country that he remembered as being a very middle class, wealthy place — really be destroyed. First by UN sanctions, then by the U.S. occupation of the country in 2003, and then by the rise of ISIS. He was living in ISIS occupied Mosul for two years and one night he went to bed at around 1:30 in the morning, and he woke up to loud, terrifying noises, and he looked up and he saw that part of his roof was missing. He looked to his left where his wife was sleeping, and it was just a pile of rubble, and he started screaming. It turned out it was an American airstrike which killed his wife and his daughter, and it struck the home next year which was owned by his brother. His brother was killed and his nephew was killed. Shortly after that happened, the coalition actually uploaded a video onto YouTube which showed a film of the strike, filmed from above, but the coalition claimed that the attack was on an IED facility, a car bomb facility, and it actually took Basim almost two years to get the coalition to admit that they actually killed civilians. AARON MATÉ: So Anand, you profiled Basim and you follow him as he tries to get accountability for what happened to him and his family. Can you tell us about the process that he had to go through? ANAND GOPAL: In many ways, Basmin is quite unique because he lived in the United States and he had a lot of American friends, and he speaks English, fluently, so he was able to reach out to them and they helped him get in touch with the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. He had a meeting with the embassy, and tried to present his case, saying that his house had been bombed and his family had been killed. He was basically stonewalled at every step of the way. He was ignored, he sent multiple emails, and he more or less got nowhere for over a year. It’s only when me and my reporting partner, Azmat Khan, when we got involved, did the coalition begin to respond, because I think the fact that there were journalists on the case, I think made it difficult for them to ignore. Whereas, for an Iraqi, it was very easy to ignore an Iraqi. We sent the coalition evidence. We sent them the videos, we sent them satellite imagery, a whole host of other things. Only after that process, and even then, after dozens and dozens of emails of back and forth, did they finally accept that they killed his family. AARON MATÉ: Right, and you accompanied him when he met in person with some U.S. military officials, where they offered him a condolence payment. The figure is $15,000 if I have that right. How does that compare to, I mean, putting aside the fact that he lost his wife and child, and other members of his family, just even the value of his home, comparing that to what he was actually offered? ANAND GOPAL: I mean, if you add up the material losses, it was something like $500,000 or $600,000. He had a pretty large house, he lived in a really nice part of Mosul, and this offer that they gave came after two years, and it was in fact the first offer for anybody in Iraq or Syria who had lost a loved one. They had one other offer, a year before, for an Iraqi whose car was destroyed. They have not make a single offer for human life, and he went into the meeting and was expecting to somehow recover his material losses. He also didn’t have a job anymore. His injuries made it difficult for him to work, so the financial aspect was really important, and they offered $15,000, which he turned down, because he found it to be an insult. He told me after that it was shocking to them that this is how much an Iraqi life is worth to the U.S.-led coalition. AARON MATÉ: Yeah. Your impression, just from touring on the ground and hearing from people, hearing their stories, comparing their reality to the way in which the bombing campaign was reported, especially by the military, claiming that this was the most precise campaign in history, can you talk about your takeaways in terms of your impressions of U.S. military’s regard for Iraqi civilian life? ANAND GOPAL: Yeah. They use “precise” in a very particular way. I mean, on the one hand, it is extremely precise, in that the bombs often don’t miss, so when they’re hitting something, they mean to hit it. When they destroyed Basim’s home, they meant to destroy that facility. In that sense, it is precise, but it’s not accurate, because in fact, there’s so much flawed intelligence that goes into these strikes. In fact, we tried to understand among these 103 airstrikes, some of the reasons why civilians were killed, and what we found in many cases was actually poor, outdated intelligence, and this is something that’s actually fairly easily fixable if the coalition actually would look at the processes through which they use to make judgments. Look at the threat intelligence thresholds, but they never do that. In fact, they don’t actually do their due diligence at all, and I think that shows that there’s a blatant disregard in fact, for Iraqi life, and ultimately at the end of the day, Iraqis are left to have to prove that they’re not ISIS. It’s not the other way around. Basically people are guilty until proven innocent. AARON MATÉ: In the case of Basim, his house was initially deemed to be some sort of weapons depot, right? By ISIS. ANAND GOPAL: A car bomb factory, in fact. AARON MATÉ: A car bomb factory. ANAND GOPAL: First they said it was a car bomb factory, on the video, and internally they said it was an ISIS headquarters, so even among themselves they couldn’t even agree on what they were striking. AARON MATÉ: One of the most striking things is that he repeatedly pleaded for a letter, just some acknowledgement from the U.S. military, just to certify that he’s not actually a member of ISIS, because the impression that he was and being bombed put him danger. How long did it take for him to get actually even that acknowledgement? ANAND GOPAL: You know, he still hasn’t gotten a letter. He’s been promised a letter multiple times. In the meeting I went in with him to get what he was offered, the payment, he asked them for something in writing that can attest to his innocence. They said they would do it. He also asked them to please call the Iraqi Security Forces, the Iraqi Army, and ask them not to target his house after Mosul was recaptured from ISIS, and they promised to do that. But neither of those things have happened. In fact, his house has been ransacked by the Iraqi Army after ISIS was kicked out. The building, which housed the pharmacy that he owned, was attacked and bombed. He’s afraid to go back to what some consider a liberated Mosul. He’s afraid to go back to Mosul because on the ground, the security forces, the militias, all they see is they see a bombed house and they assume, “Well, this house was struck by the Americans who are our allies here. This guy must be ISIS.” He’s terrified, and he thinks he can never go back to Mosul, and he’s still waiting for a letter from the America’s. AARON MATÉ: Anand, finally, were there other options in terms of, just from the goal of uprooting ISIS from Mosul, were there other options to this massive and devastating bombing campaign that killed so many people? ANAND GOPAL: Well you know, there are a few political choices that were made along the way that I think really changed the death toll and made it much worse. I’ll give you a couple of examples. One was a change made under the Obama administration in December which made it easier for frontline commanders to call on airstrikes. What the effect of this was is that you had a lot of people who are in the thick of the battle calling in strikes in cases where, for example, there was a sniper, an ISIS sniper on the roof of a house, and there were a dozen family members trapped under the house, and somebody called an airstrike and bombed the house, just to kill the house. It also killed 12-15 civilians. This kind of story was happening again and again. A second choice that was made was that in the Battle for Mosul itself, there was a political decision made to encircle Mosul and not allow an exit quarter for ISIS fighters or even initially for civilians. Whereas, the U.S. and the Iraq government had done so in the previous battles, like the Battle for Fallujah. They actually allowed an exit corridor for ISIS fighters, and when the fighters left the city, the U.S. backed forces fought them in the desert. The city itself was mostly spared. In Mosul there was a decision to annihilate ISIS, even if that meant killing tens of thousands of civilians. That was a political decision that was made, and it stems from decisions made under the Obama administration, and that’s really why we see the death toll being what it is. AARON MATÉ: The piece, the must-read piece in the New York Times is called, “The Uncounted,” written by Azmat Khan and my guest, Anand Gopal. Anand is the author of the book, “No Good Men Among the Living.” Anand, thank you. ANAND GOPAL: Thanks so much. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.