Starr Forum: The Uncounted: Civilian victims of America’s wars

Starr Forum: The Uncounted: Civilian victims of America’s wars


JOHN TIRMAN: For me,
a special occasion to welcome Azmat Khan, who
has done some remarkable work on the human cost
of war, which we’ll be getting to in a moment. But first of all,
let me welcome you on behalf of the Center
for International Studies. I’m John Tirman. And welcome to our
Facebook audience and others who will be
tuning in today or later. We have a couple of things
coming up in the future I want to announce. You can always look at
our calendar at the Center for International Studies
to check on events. But two star forums
upcoming soon. One is next Tuesday, March
20 at 4:30 in E25 111. A session on the Focus
on Russia lecture series. The speakers will be Barry
Posen, our own Barry Posen, Angela Stent of
Georgetown University, and Andrei Kozyrev,
who was Russia’s first foreign minister. First post-Soviet foreign
minister, I assume. And then a star
forum on Tuesday, April 3rd at 4:30
in building 2, room 190 on women’s empowerment. Are global development
organizations helping or hurting? And that will feature
Kate Cronin-Furman, who is a post-doc at
Harvard’s Kennedy School. And I’m not going to spell– I’m not going to pronounce
this name correctly. So I have to look
at it carefully. Nimmi Gowrinathan, who
is a visiting professor at City College. They have some very
interesting findings of some work they’ve done on
international development. So please join us for those two. And there will be others. So check in, as I
say, on our website. Today, it’s really a
pleasure to welcome Azmat Khan, who is a journalist,
a multi-award winner. There’s a long list
of awards here. I’m not going to
go through them. But I will tell you that
just the other day she and her co-author of this
article, “The Uncounted,” won a National Magazine
Award for this New York Times Magazine article, the result
of a lot of innovative, and I dare say,
courageous research in Mosul about the human cost
of American bombing there. She is an adjunct professor at
the City University of New York graduate school of journalism,
and a Logan nonfiction fellow at the Carey Institute
for Global Good, a member of the board of governors of the
Overseas Press Club of America. She’s a veteran of
Frontline here in Boston and many other
wonderful manifestations of her journalism. So it’s with great
pleasure that I introduce and please welcome Azmat Khan. [APPLAUSE] AZMAT KHAN: I want to take you
through some of our findings, as well as greater insight into
exactly how we did what we did, and what it means. So this investigation
really came out of what was an unprecedented
air campaign on so many levels. Since August of 2014,
the United States has been uploading videos
like this of airstrikes that it’s conducted in Iraq
and Syria against ISIS. And these videos
really show what is a very sophisticated air
campaign unlike anything we’ve seen before in terms the
levels of precision, in terms of the kinds of structures
that are being hit, the ability that the
technology has to, for example, strike a house and
hit everything– hit a single room
with fighters in it and touch nothing
else outside it. It’s really incredible. And as I was
watching these videos and looking at where we
were getting information about this unprecedented
air campaign– there have been
14,000 airstrikes in Iraq since 2014
and 14,000 in Syria since 2014 conducted by
this US-led coalition that’s targeting ISIS. What I found fascinating
is that the information we were getting about
this air campaign was coming from one
of either two places. It was either coming
from the coalition, for example, in videos such
as these uploaded to YouTube, to military websites. Or it was coming from ISIS. These are some images that ISIS
had shot of airplanes overhead, as well as of– oh sure. As well as of some of
the propaganda videos that ISIS has made
to essentially tout civilian casualties as it
tries to stoke opposition to the air war. And I realize that
very little information was coming from the ground. So from civilians themselves. ISIS had banned the
use of cell phones in many of these
territories that they held, specifically because they feared
that locals were using them to call in airstrikes, provide
intelligence about who to hit and what to hit. So in this absence, I wanted
to know how possible it would be to do a systematic sample
on the ground of areas held by ISIS where coalition
airstrikes were playing out. And before I get into that
sample and what I found, I want to take you
through just one example. This is a video
from September 2015 that the coalition
uploaded to YouTube. It shows what looks like
a very precise airstrike. You see a compound
identified here as a VBIED network hit
in an airstrike that hit just these two parts of it. Everything else around
it remains intact. It’s pretty incredible. But what these views from
satellite imagery, what these views from the
videos don’t show you is that these were
two civilian homes. Specifically, they were the
homes of a man pictured here. His name is Basim Razzo. To the right is his daughter
in a photo taken the night before this airstrike. His wife, Mayada, on the left. His brother, Mohannad Razzo,
who lived in the house next to theirs, and his nephew,
Najib, Mohannad’s son. Basim survived this
airstrike with dire injuries. His wife, his daughter,
his nephew died. And when he found himself in the
middle of the night waking up to the stars and sky over
Mosul, no roof above his head, his wife missing, he
turned and called out the names of his
relatives and had no idea as he was being taken
out of his home with a crane and brought to a hospital– he had no idea why his
family had been targeted. But as he awakened
in the hospital and was taken back to
his parents’ house, he saw this video. And he immediately recognized it
as his and his brother’s homes. He didn’t know what
led the coalition to dub them in this
video as an IED facility. He had no idea why
his family was killed. But he really wanted to
try to figure it out. Now, Basim is unlike many of the
other survivors of airstrikes that I’ve met. He lived in the United
States for a period of time. He attended Western
Michigan University. He has an engineering degree. And he also had a cousin
who was a professor– who is a professor at
Yale, Zareena Grewal. And so he did
everything he could. He managed to escape
ISIS territory. He negotiated a release
in which he gave up the deed to his property so
that he could get medical care. He traveled through ISIS-held
Syria and on to Turkey where he received treatment. And then he began a campaign
of trying to get what happened to him acknowledged. When this video was uploaded
to YouTube, he felt he and his family, the rest of
the survivors of his family, were targets. They were now dubbed ISIS. And when Mosul would
be retaken, they might be targeted by retaliatory
gangs, rogue militias, or even local Iraqi authorities
that were trying to root out all instances of ISIS. And he was able to, unlike so
many others, actually set up a meeting at the US
embassy in Baghdad. He prepared a nine
page document outlining what happened to him that night,
the family members that he lost, and what he was seeking. He provided the GPS
coordinates of his home. He said that there
was a video of it. And he brought all of this
to the US consular section at this embassy. He pressed up against
a window, and he spoke to a consular officer
who told him, I believe you. The exact words used were,
I get so many sob stories when people come
in to talk to me. But I believe you. But nothing happened. Basim never heard
back to his emails. He never received a reply
about what had happened to him in the months that came. And by May of 2016,
more than seven months after the airstrike,
I met him in Baghdad. And we sat down. And he explained
to me that he just wasn’t getting any traction. In fact, the last
email he sent them, he’d received a
response that said– it was a bounce back message. And so he had no idea what
the status of his case was. He’d been able to
get his cousin– I’m sorry, his relative. His cousin’s wife, who
was the professor at Yale, to write an op-ed in the New
York Times about the airstrike. And yet, there was no
traction on his case. So if anyone of all of
these kinds of victims– here was somebody who
spoke English, was able to get a meeting
at the embassy, was able to get a piece in the
New York Times op-ed section about what happened to
him– was unable to get an acknowledgment
or an investigation into what happened. So this was sort of
one of the stories that I found as I
started to investigate. And I’ll take you through
what I found in his case. But also what I sought to
find in the overall air war. And so what I did in
Mosul was a sample of– I visited the sites of
at least 150 airstrikes. But 103 of these were a
sample from three territories. I did my best to do a
cluster-based sample in what was a small town called Shura,
typical of many of the small ISIS settlements that– many of the settlements
that ISIS took over. A medium-sized
suburban municipality called Qaiyara, which
is maybe the biggest town between Mosul and Erbil. And the Aden district
of east Mosul, which is a dense urban
neighborhood in which– very typical of some
of the parts of Mosul that were hit by airstrikes. And what I did in
each of these places was to go to the site of
every single airstrike that I could find. I did hundreds of interviews. I distinguish between
what were airstrikes and what were bombings
on the ground. Distinguish between what
ISIS itself had conducted, what local vigilante
groups had conducted. And was able to isolate the
spots of different airstrikes. And in doing so,
was able to find, not just civilian
casualty airstrikes, but those that hit
legitimate ISIS targets without killing civilians. And I just want to take you
through some of what I found. I found, for example, the
man pictured here, who lived next to a factory that– what was a home that was
abandoned that ISIS took over and used to produce IEDs. He lived next to it. And when that house next to him
was bombed, so was his home. This is a case in
which a family lived next to a home that had
also been overtaken by ISIS. But ISIS left a few hours
before this airstrike that then destroyed both houses. And six people were killed. This was an airstrike
on a railroad in Qaiyara where ISIS had been
the week before, but not the week
of the airstrike. Eight people died. And Rawa was the lone
survivor of her family. She was only two years old. And then I also found
instances in which– here’s the water sanitation
facility in Qaiyara, which was hit
precisely, accurately, without killing any civilians. And the reason why
I was tracking both was so that I could do
a systematic sample. I could understand which had hit
ISIS targets and which had not. I also, in addition to doing
that, was tracking what facilities ISIS had used
in each of these areas– so where they had been present,
when they had been present– in an effort to try to
determine whether an airstrike, if it hit a civilian, if there
was an ISIS target nearby. And if there wasn’t,
what might be the cause of why an airstrike
might target a civilian or hit a civilian. What I found was that, while
the coalition’s own publicly reported data showed that, of
the more than 14,000 airstrikes carried out in Iraq, that
only 89 incidents at the time of publication had resulted
in civilian death, or a rate of about one in every
157 strikes, about 0.6%. On the ground I found that
one in five of the coalition airstrikes I found resulted
in a civilian death, which is 31 times higher than what
the government is claiming. But in addition to figuring
out these numbers– there’s many groups that
have sought to do so. Maybe not on the ground in
recent years, but through press releases, by analyzing
press reports, by looking at social media. I really wanted to go beyond
just the civilian death rate and understand why these
might be happening. And while the military
often identifies really only two reasons for why
many of these civilian casualty incidents happen– one is the result of
secondary explosions when they hit, for example,
an IED facility that then explodes and creates more
damage around the vicinity. Or when somebody
might be walking and they step into the
vicinity of an airstrike after a weapon has
already been released. And so what you have
are what the government sees as primarily
issues of proximity. I found that proximity was
the cause in about a third of the civilian
casualty sites I found. That about 17% were
the result of hitting a civilian home where there
was an ISIS target nearby. But it missed, or it
appeared to have missed what probably was the target. But in half the cases I found
poor or outdated intelligence to be the cause. So poor intelligence
meaning there actually was no ISIS target nearby. They had misidentified
civilians for combatants. Or that it was outdated, that
ISIS had been in that area and had left previously. But one of the most striking
findings that I found was the fact that in
many of these cases the coalition was unable to
even identify its own airstrike. So I traveled to the
US air base in Qatar where the United
States– the nerve center for this air campaign. It’s called the combined
air operations center. It’s where the US
leads this coalition and carries out many
of these airstrikes. The aircrafts take
off from there. It’s one of the few
places where the United States is allowed to park B-52
bombers in the Middle East. And I spent a few
days researching, interviewing officers there. And ultimately what I did is
I turned over all of the data on each of the airstrikes that
I had documented and asked the coalition, did you conduct
this on this date at this time? And I’m just going to
give you an example. Here’s an airstrike on
a bridge in Qaiyara. I provided them the
information about it. And what I was told was, no, we
did not conduct that airstrike. The nearest airstrike
was 150 meters away on a different day against
an observed enemy vehicle. But the coalition’s own
video shows the following. There’s no vehicle. It is the bridge I identified. And when I followed up with
the coalition about why they were unable to track
their own airstrike, the response I got was that
the strike log that they used to search when there
are allegations of civilian casualties
only included one of the targets hit in
a small period of time. They use incomplete logs. Now, the number one
reason that the coalition cites when it
denies an allegation of civilian casualties– the
number one reason it cites is that they have no
record of an airstrike in that geographic
area at that time. Now, this wasn’t
a lone instance. It happened over and over. Similarly, that water sanitation
plant I showed you earlier, the one that had not even
resulted in a civilian death, which I included in
asking them whether or not they had carried out, I
was told it was unlikely. The nearest airstrike was on
that day, but 600 meters away. So just to give you a
sense, the threshold they were using to tell me
whether an airstrike was likely or unlikely then– the threshold they
used was 50 meters. So if it fell within 50 meters
of a coordinate in their logs, they deemed it a
likely airstrike. But if it fell above 50 meters
or outside of that range, it was deemed unlikely. In this case they told me it
was as far as 600 meters away. Again, there is a
video of this incident. Which, when I sent them– and it shows very
clearly the spot that I had been on the
ground and the area that I had identified. I’d even sent them– when I sent them satellite
imagery of this area, I’d even sent them
screenshots from this video. In this case, I
was told, look, I can only tell you what
the strike log shows. The impact was 600 meters
away from what you cited. And so I found
repeatedly over and over that there were instances in
which the coalition couldn’t even identify its
own airstrikes, raising incredible questions
about their reliability when they receive an allegation
of a civilian casualty. But as I continued
to investigate in many of these cases I found
that Iraqis had no means– in addition to not even having
these logs searched properly or keeping logs that
make it possible to do real investigations
in the first place, the coalition
would not interview survivors of airstrikes. They would not do any ground
investigation themselves. They rely heavily on their own
videos and internal reports, which are the ones that have
resulted in the most admissions of civilian casualties. When a pilot might
after dropping report, hey, we may have killed
civilians in this instance. That’s the majority
of the credible– that’s the majority
of the allegations that they have deemed credible,
come from their own reporting. Iraqi civilians or
civilians on the ground who try to report
this on their own face little to no chance
of ever getting an answer. In fact, Basim Razzo was
not getting an answer. Somebody who spoke
English, somebody who had the means to set up
a meeting at the US embassy. And so Anand and I
picked up his case. We brought it to the coalition. We asked them about
it repeatedly. And it became the first offer
of a condolence payments for a civilian death in the
entire anti-ISIS air war. About a year ago,
almost to the day, Basim met with US officials. They met him in Erbil. And they offered him a payment
of $15,000 for the deaths of his family members. He himself had estimated
the loss of his homes alone, both of those
homes was worth $500,000. And in this meeting he’s told,
look, this is not an admission. This is just a gesture
of our sympathy for what happened to you. And he said, that’s ridiculous. And he rejected it. Basim is the only
person to have received an offer like this in this way. But of the more than 100
civilians whose families I’ve spoken to who
died in airstrikes and whose stories I’ve
turned over to the coalition, none of them have received
anything like that. In fact, many of them have not
even heard from the coalition I recently returned to the sites
of some of these airstrikes in January. And I was able to go to
see some of these civilians again, to ask them about what
they’d heard, what they’d seen, whether they’d been contacted. What they told me is
they hadn’t heard a peep. And more than that,
they were essentially functioning– they were part
of a system in which they were guilty until they
could prove their innocence. And what I found repeatedly
was the threshold for proving one’s
innocence was so much higher than the threshold
for even the airstrike that took place in the first place. But more than
anything, if you look at any issues in which there
has been some accountability, or for example, that
condolence payment, the only times that the military
in this anti-ISIS air war has moved the needle
on any of these issues has often been
almost exclusively in cases in which journalists
or the public raised a case. And the reality of
air war today is that there’s very
little interest in these civilian casualties. The American public
doesn’t particularly care. And as a result,
journalists also are not investing
the same resources that they might
have if there was a widespread anti-war
movement in the United States. But when you shift
the costs of war to a foreign population, when
you shift the human cost of war to a human population, and you
rely primarily on airstrikes and American soldiers
aren’t on the ground, and American soldiers,
thankfully, are not dying in these wars
in large numbers as they had in the
past, the likelihood of an anti-war
movement is small. If you look at the history of
civilian casualty protections and advances within
our own military, they often came almost
always in times in which there was an anti-war movement. So accountability is closely
tied to that interest from the American public. And so what I hope we’ll have
some time to talk about today and discuss is really
what the conditions are for shifting
the needle or moving the needle when it comes
to greater accountability and transparency. But also your role
as citizens, active engaged citizens, in making sure
that these stories get told, and that there’s
attention on them. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] JOHN TIRMAN: So we will have
some questions available. I mean, some mics available
for questions for you in a few moments. I’m just going to start
the conversation with Azmat to keep things up
a little bit here. That was a remarkable
visual experience to see these things which
we rarely get to see. My question though– and I
don’t know if you can really answer it– is is this
attitude of the military– and let me just add
an additional thought about civilian casualties in the
process by which the military– through which the military
goes to make these strikes. If you ask them about their
concern for civilians, they will say– when I say they, I mean
mainly the Pentagon, people in the Pentagon,
the uniformed military– will say that they
go to great lengths to avoid collateral damage. And in fact, that they
have filters, essentially, for making decisions about
airstrikes in real time while the jets are in
the air, so to speak. If they’re looking
at a target that they believe has
civilians in it, they will deny permission of the– AZMAT KHAN: Yeah, abort calls. JOHN TIRMAN: Correct. I don’t know the terminology. But they will deny permission
for airstrikes on occasion. But what your research shows
is that there is really very little control over
discipline, over that process. Is that your
understanding of it? AZMAT KHAN: It’s the case
that they do carry out abort calls, right. Where they’re watching,
and all of a sudden they see someone walking by. And they’ll say
abort, abort, abort. And maybe they’ll come back
later to carry that out. And that’s the case. That does happen in
certain instances. But what that
neglects is the fact that you don’t always see
where there are civilians. Oftentimes they’re inside homes. And I think the
best example of this is actually just Basim Razzo. I was able to obtain
the investigation that our reporting triggered. And in it you
essentially see how they evaluated this
airstrike, and how they conducted it and assessed it. And what they found– what we found is that
they had sent out– dispatched a drone to
surveil the property. And it conducted maybe an
hour and a half of footage over three days in
15 minute increments, often during the heat of
Iraq, the heat of summer. And here’s what they noted. They said, look, there’s
no unusual activity. But we don’t see
women or children. And that was seen
as evidence of ISIS. They said nobody is
brandishing weapons. But obviously ISIS wouldn’t
brandish weapons openly. They know not to do that. They said that men were
opening a gate, something that they said was an
ISIS pattern of behavior, because there was
restricted access. And ultimately what happened
is that this airstrike was carried out based on an
hour and a half of footage. It had sealed this
family’s fate. And one of the things they
noted is that it was up to them to show to a drone operating
above that they were civilians. The assumption was
that they were guilty. And when you look at this,
what you find is that, actually, this
airstrike was one of– actually met some of
the highest thresholds. It actually had some
of the most vetting. It was what’s known as a
deliberate airstrike, planned over months and weeks. Only 15% of the airstrikes
in this campaign were deliberate
airstrikes carried out over weeks or
months of planning. Most of them are what are known
as dynamic airstrikes, carried out within minutes or hours. This is an airstrike
that was supposed to meet some of the highest thresholds. Not just because it was planned
over that length of time. But because the target
that they identified– and actually misidentified
it in the video that they’d uploaded,
which they removed along with all other airstrike videos
after we began questioning. But in the actual
investigation documents, what it had originally
been identified was as an ISIS headquarters. An ISIS headquarters is supposed
to meet the fourth highest level of vetting. It’s supposed to be
one of the hardest to identify, and
therefore be one of the– go through the most
measures to vet it. One of the reasons why
I chose this case– not just because there had
been a video of it uploaded and a means to sort of hold
them accountable in this case– was because in so many
ways this is supposed to be the best case scenario. It’s supposed to be evidence
of their incredible precision, and their vetting processes, and
their means to really look out for and protect civilians. But what you found was
example after example in which this family
was deemed to be– was assessed to be guilty even
though the evidence did not show that. They had no evidence to show it. And this is something
I think about often, is how since 9/11
in particular there is this assumption of guilt
until innocence is proven. And I as a journalist
am required to, in each of these
cases, show here’s how I know that
they’re civilians. And have all of that
ready for a fact check, be able to prove it
in extreme detail. And I’m comfortable doing that. But what I find is that
we’re not comfortable asking our government, well, how
do you know that they are ISIS? What’s your proof? And what you’re often met with
is that this is classified. We have high level intelligence. This is very sophisticated. We know what you don’t. No, I know what they don’t. That’s what I found
on the ground. JOHN TIRMAN: I have heard
it said that since President Trump took office, the– I’m not going to get
the terms right again. But the authority
to make strikes has gone down the officer ranks. That is– is that correct? AZMAT KHAN: So it’s interesting. Because that change
that happened, that directive that
was issued, actually happened in December of
2016 while Obama was still in office. And so it’s often
attributed to Trump. And while we’ve seen an
increase in the number of civilian casualties
under this administration, it’s hard to correlate
that with policy as opposed to the battle for Mosul
starting and it actually being that sort of time in
this campaign in this effort to take back Mosul. I’ve yet to see
evidence that shows that to be directly
linked necessarily to this administration. I think that there
are other things that have been changed under
this administration that might suggest that there
will be more authority given to the military to conduct
things as it wishes with fewer constraints. JOHN TIRMAN: There
is an article– just to make a note for people
who are interested in this– by Samuel Oakford. AZMAT KHAN: Sam
Oakford at AirWars. JOHN TIRMAN: At AirWars that
talks about the Raqqa campaign. And in some detail. And I think some of this
controversy about authority to strike and so on is in that. Just one other question from me,
and that is, at the other end, so to speak, after the
strike has taken place, and there are civilian
casualties, what do you reckon is the reason why the
military is so reluctant to come to terms with
what has actually happened on the ground? When you present
them with evidence, like you have in some of
these cases, that just seems incontrovertible, and yet
they are still in denial, what do you think is going
on inside the military? Is it intentional? Is it just willful ignorance? Is it accidental? Is it lack of attention to– what’s your sense. AZMAT KHAN: I think
it goes back to what I brought up earlier, that
the military has always been most accountable
when the public has cared. And so even during,
I think, what was one of the periods in which
the military was paying closer attention, during this
counterinsurgency campaign in the aughts, specifically
under General McChrystal– there was greater
interest in this. Because there was an active
opposition and critical lens on how the war was
being conducted. And also an effort to try to
win over the local population. And so it takes a combination
or at least one of two factors. It requires somebody very
senior within the military to demand it, and
direct it down. But it also means that the
public has to care and demand for accountability. And there really
aren’t many calls. There are organizations
like AirWars that are doing really
fascinating advocacy on this issue. But unlike– if you think back
to the war in Iraq previously, or if you think back to the
war in Afghanistan previously, there was an engaged
American public. Because there were American
soldiers on the ground. So there was an
awareness among everyone that there was a war
that’s happening. When this has been
conducted primarily by air, fewer Americans are
interested or even following the
happenings of this war, let alone tracking the
costs, the human costs to foreign populations. And so you’re less likely– there’s less ability for the
military to feel that pressure and then respond and
be more accountable. JOHN TIRMAN: How do you
think the news media has covered this aspect of it? That is, one could
argue, I guess, that the war against
ISIS, particularly, has been difficult for news
organizations to cover. Partly the remoteness
of where the action is, and just the sheer violence
of the campaign against ISIS, compared with the deployment
of large numbers of journalists at the outset of the 2003
invasion of Iraq, for example. Do you think that
that’s a factor in how the military responds
and how accountability is built? AZMAT KHAN: Well,
there’s actually been tons of coverage
of the war on ISIS. In fact, it’s one of the sexiest
subjects and was for a while. And getting a military embed
or being on the front lines is one of the most
coveted spots. News editors are constantly
assigning stories about embedding with troops
and the retaking of towns. And all of that is important. It’s important to see how
war is being conducted. It’s important to
understand what it’s like for a
population that was living under ISIS brutality. But the same sort
of interest in– when it comes to accountability
or civilian casualties, there have been some reporters
who’ve done some excellent work exploring individual instances. There’s been some attention. But to see that investment
from news organizations to dig deeply into this the
same way that they’ve invested in stories of how
ISIS operates it’s finances, how it makes its
money, how it has massacred– and understandably. All of these are
valuable stories. I’m not at all
raising any critiques of investing in those stories. There just isn’t as much– there’s only a
fraction of attention on the civilian casualties. And part of that– analysts that I’ve
spoken with often bring this up, that
ISIS is perceived to have– bring a new kind of–
a new level of brutality, one that they say has lowered the
standards for accountability. That because ISIS is so brutal,
that some of these analysts will say that the United
States has actually lowered its own standards
when conducting this war. That it seemed to be
justifiable to do so. The military would dispute that. They would say they’re
operating under the same levels of standards. Many analysts raise
this as a point. I think that you
can certainly say that when it comes to
the American public, the American public is
often willing to look– is less willing to care
when there is such a– when there is a threat like ISIS
that has been, understandably– has played out on
television screens and in papers as something that
is a new kind of brutality. So many people, many
Americans, I think, are less willing to be
invested in paying attention to and following these
civilian casualties. JOHN TIRMAN: So let’s get
some questions from you all. Come to the mics, please,
because it is recorded. AUDIENCE: Thank you very much. It’s really incredible
work that you’re doing. And I have two questions. One is about the
research process. And when you’re
traveling to these sites, what was the greatest challenge
in either interviewing people or actually visiting
these sites. And the second question is,
why does the military even upload these videos? And is there a pattern
of these being taken down once you ask them about it? AZMAT KHAN: Yeah. So on the first
question, about the challenges in doing
the ground reporting. Sometimes it was just getting
access to these areas. And I mean from
government authorities. There were different
periods of time in which there had been
some bad press about how the Iraqi army had
been operating, or how government allied
militias had been operating. And they would sort of
restrict journalists’ access to some of these areas. Shura, one of the
towns in my sample– nobody was allowed
in at that time. And so I would just
show up every day. And I think the first
time that I got there, I had to sit down with the– in that case, it was the
Iraqi army that was there. And have several days of
tea before they finally got sick of following me
around, and I could just do what I wanted in this town. And so it was just
like repeated trips, repeated trips made it
possible to do these samples. In terms of the difficulty
of interviewing, what I felt
throughout was just– I was asking people to
relive some of the worst moments of their life. And I think that ethically
interviewing victims of trauma is something I was
concerned about constantly. And of course, I always
obtained informed consent. I told people very
clearly what I was doing and how I was doing it. And everyone had the option,
of course, to say no. But I just made sure
that they understood what the risks of them
talking to me were. But more than that, I tried to– I would often try to
interview in a way that would ease them into talking
about some of these things. So I’d often actually just
ask them about their– growing up in Shura, or
growing up in Qaiyara, or growing up in Mosul. Their earliest memories and
their memories of the Gulf War, of the Iran-Iraq war. And bring them eventually
into the contemporary context. And I found that that
was sometimes easier for them to talk about. On your second question,
which was about the videos. Yes. So the military continues
to upload videos to military web sites. The one place where they started
to take down airstrike videos was YouTube. And one of the reasons that– one of the distinctions
with YouTube is that there were comments. There was the space
to make comments on a lot of these videos. And in the case of the video on
the homes of the Razzo family, family members had actually
left comments saying, do you know you killed my cousin? Do you know that
they were innocent? You’re barbarians. How could you do this? And these comments
were on this video. And when I sent those
comments to the coalition, the video was taken
down shortly after. In addition to that, videos– all of the airstrike videos were
taken down in the coming weeks. And the reason why
they had started to do it in the first
place goes actually back to the start of
the anti-ISIS campaign, when ISIS was
perceived to be very good at operating online,
running its own propaganda. And I think that in large
part the US military sought using these
digital platforms and using Twitter in
an effort to create some kind of counter
propaganda campaign. And so it was both to
showcase its precision, but also to show that they
could be just as adept online. JOHN TIRMAN: We’ll
go back and forth. AUDIENCE: Hi, my
name’s Marina Gabriel. And I work in cultural heritage
protection in this region. So my coworkers and I read your
report with extreme interest. We covered the
military operations in Iraq and in Mosul. But mostly looking
at where damage was taking place versus
the civilian casualties. But these stories
remind me of what– we had a similar instance
happen in northern Aleppo, where a mosque was hit
in an airstrike and had– reporters went in. Same response from
the US military. And I think it was two
reports, possibly an Amnesty International and Human Rights
Watch, that finally got them to admit, OK, maybe it was us. But I don’t think they
ever confirmed it. But one thing that
always makes me wonder is the idea that
their neighbors– if their property is
targeted in a strike, their neighbors or
Iraqis in general will assume that they had
something to do with ISIS. I wonder if the same
thing happens in Syria. I don’t know. Because we have limited access
to people on the ground. But I was just wondering
what you observed in that. Because you did– you
touched on it briefly. But also what that does for
future relations between the US and countries like
Iraq and Syria. I don’t– it’s challenging
to imagine that we’re going to rebuild any relationship
after conducting air campaigns like this. Or on the other side, has
that level of destruction, and death, and devastation
just become so normalized that people have become
kind of numb to it? AZMAT KHAN: Right. So the first part of the
question, which was about– can you just remind me what
the first part of your question was about? AUDIENCE: Oh no, it was just a
comment on how some of these– AZMAT KHAN: No,
you had a question. You had a specific question. AUDIENCE: About people’s
reactions to their neighbors when these things happen. AZMAT KHAN: No, but– JOHN TIRMAN: The mosque. AZMAT KHAN: OK, yes right. OK so yes– AUDIENCE: Oh, the mosque in
that was just an anecdote. AZMAT KHAN: Got it. OK, yeah, sure, no. Yes, about people assuming that
their neighbors are guilty, because they were
hit by an airstrike. Obviously in the case of
Basim, he wasn’t worried that his next door
neighbors were going to think he was guilty. He was worried that
authorities that were going to come in
after Mosul was liberated would think that. And that’s been the case. I found repeatedly that after
an area was retaken from ISIS, that these sort of vigilante
gangs would come in. And they would start
targeting either places where ISIS members
had lived or where people even just had family
members that had been in ISIS. And so they would
relish telling me these stories of– this
house, this ISIS enforcer used to live in this house. He used to make us cut
our pant legs short. He used to whip
us for not wearing the appropriate clothing. You know, men had to wear
shorter pant legs under ISIS. And so one man told me
with great joy, yeah, we went into his house, and
we burned all of his clothes. And then we burned
down the whole house. And there were lots of stories
in which they would do things like this. And then there would also be
more sinister stories, in which the Iraqi army would come in. They would round up
members who were believed to have been part of ISIS. And then leave them in a home
while they went somewhere else. And then locals would come
and kill those people. Rogue militias– so this was
the case when certain Shia militia– factions of Shia militias
would be in areas, particularly in Anbar, after ISIS had been
kicked out of these areas. There would be anybody who had
been deemed a collaborator– and one of the ways
that you can be accused of that is if your
home was hit by an airstrike. Obviously with someone
like Basim Razzo, the threat goes up
when there’s a video of the airstrike on your home. And everybody can see it. And it’s so clearly your home. In terms of relationships
with the Iraqi government, it’s actually not the government
with whom the United States would have strained relations. This government was actively
in support of this air war. In fact, it was Iraqi sources,
Iraqi military sources, who are often
providing intelligence for many of these airstrikes. I honestly think– and I’d love
to get your thoughts on this– that actually America’s
reputation in Iraq– it really can’t get much
lower among Iraqi civilians. That ship has sailed. And so the question
is not, how much does this damage the
perception of America in Iraq? It actually is the
question of, how much does this damage
Iraqis’ perceptions of their own government? And this is one of the factors
that led to the rise of ISIS. People felt disenfranchised. They felt that their
government– especially in swaths of Anbar, in
parts of Mosul, areas that had large Sunni populations
who felt disenfranchised, were more willing to
collaborate or invite ISIS into some of their towns. And so it raises
the question, when there are these sort of
political problems, what is the likelihood in
this case, of people who felt particularly besieged. So I think about
a different area. Not even Mosul, but Hawija,
not too far from Mosul, that was really hit
by bombing very hard. That had been the site of
anti-government protests in 2013, led to
the rise of ISIS. What does the
population of Hawija right now think of
their own government? And is there any
likelihood of them being able to get behind that
government in the near future? AUDIENCE: Thanks. AUDIENCE: Well, there have been
reports in the European press that the Iraqi
forces, including some of the elite brigades like the
Emergency Response Division, have been guilty of
widespread systematic torture of individuals. So it’s not just the
American government, which has its own problems
that we are responsible for, and vigilante groups. But the trust in the government
has plummeted as well. Because they are engaged
in a purge of people that may be as innocent
as some of the victims that you show in
the drone strikes. And as far as Trump
and Obama goes, I don’t think that there’s
a change in authorizing battlefield commanders. It’s the fact of
what constitutes a battlefield that’s been
expanded under Trump. So you have areas
like Somalia and Niger that weren’t allowed
to do that under Obama, because they weren’t
considered a direct threat to American military personnel,
that now have that authority. So I mean, the same
principle is involved, but it’s a much
more expanded base. But what seems to be a problem
here is not just Mosul. But these same principles apply
to drone strikes everywhere. You have– targeted
for signature reasons, or targeted for
personality reasons. And any male between 18
and 45 is automatically considered an enemy combatant. So they are not going to be
listed as a civilian casualty anyway. So I would– AZMAT KHAN: So– AUDIENCE: In your
opinion, just from what you’ve seen, what do you
think is the major problem? Is it faulty intelligence? Or is it the fact
that we shouldn’t even be there in the first place? AZMAT KHAN: Thank you. So just on the first part. You’re raising the issue
of the Iraqi emergency services and British press. That was the incident
I was referring to when I said,
all of a sudden, it was difficult for
journalists to be allowed into some of these areas. Because there had been
photos published of torture by this Iraqi army journalists
had been able to document. And in this case,
it was a journalist who’d done so for Der Spiegel. And all of a sudden, one of
the ramifications of that was that they restricted
access for a lot of press. And certainly it is the
case that official parts of the Iraqi government,
including the Iraqi army, have been responsible for
grave human rights abuses. Of course, it’s not
just the United States. But it’s part of
why when we talk to an American audience
about America’s involvement in these wars that you
can’t not look at that role and accountability. But on your second point
about drone strikes. I mean, keep in
mind that the war– that this air campaign in Iraq
and Syria is not just drones. It’s B-52 bombers. It’s A-10 warthogs. It’s some of these
large scale planes that are dropping things much
bigger than you would ever expect that do have
pilots, that do have people that are
flying on missions for great lengths of time. So much so that they actually
have to be refueled midair. And they’re huge. And the fuel costs are enormous. But when you’re asking
about Somalia and Yemen, actually you saw increases in
airstrikes in Somalia and Yemen under the previous
administration. I would argue that if you
were to do a literature review of media citations
covering these airstrikes now under President Trump, you’d
see greater focus on it now than you did under
President Obama. The journalists care more
about it under President Trump. I’ve seen greater
interest in the story that I was doing
under President Trump than I did when I was
under President Obama. And I just mean from
editors commissioning it. There is far greater
interest when President Trump is conducting– under
this administration, than there was in
these issues under the previous administration. I’ve seen a marked shift. Now, there have been
some incidents actually involving people on the ground. So SEAL teams or raids,
both in Yemen, Niger, other places, that I
think is a marked shift. You’ve seen an
increase in the number of these raids and American
troops on the ground. But when it comes
to the air campaign, President Obama escalated the
air campaign in Yemen in 2009. A few years ago when
I was at Frontline, I did an interactive map of
all of the CIA’s and JSOC strikes that I was able
to document in Yemen. And one of the things
that I did was you could document the
escalation over years. And so you could click through
2008, 2009, 2010, 2011. Actually from 2002 forward. And you could just see every
single spot on this map. And you see how
rapidly that escalated. That happened under the
previous administration. Same with Somalia. It is certainly the
case that battlefields are being redefined. But that also happened
under President Obama. AUDIENCE: Hi, very nice talk. I have two questions. One was, what is the
effectiveness of propaganda by the American military? Like, all these videos
that they’re posting. What is the target
audience there? And the second question which
sort of follows from the answer that you just gave– so you mentioned
reporting on ISIS as some sort of coveted topic. But then there’s
a significant lack of investigative journalism like
yours on these civilian deaths. So what is the role
of media in organizing the public debate for this
alternative war that’s going. AZMAT KHAN: Yeah, I want to
be careful in what I say. There’s been some really
great investigative journalism into specific civilian
casualty incidents. The Washington Post did
an extraordinary job of looking at an
airstrike in Al Hatra. The LA Times did some
really incredible work in documenting civilian
deaths in Mosul. AirWars, as you
mentioned, and Sam Oakford specifically has written for
Foreign Policy and elsewhere about these. I think that there are
some journalists doing some really incredible work. And I wouldn’t want– I don’t think that
this investigation is the only one that’s happened. I think the difference is that
we were on the ground for these and for a large enough sample. And that we were able to
get the coalition to respond to exact coordinates. But so there is some stuff. But getting more editors to
care really depends, I think, on the American public caring
about it in the first place. The story of ISIS’s
butchery is a sexy story. How they radicalize people
online, it’s a sexy story. These stories get commissioned. Retaking territory
from ISIS or liberating a population, a sexy story. Civilian casualties
are far less sexy. And I hate to use that word. But when we talked about how
the media commissions things, that’s an integral part of it. In terms of the first
part of your question and the effectiveness. Is this propaganda– are these
propaganda efforts playing out? I’ll tell you what they do. They give this veneer
of transparency. So let’s say you’re reporting. And you want to know what’s
happening on the ground. Keep in mind, your
information is likely coming from one of two sources. It’s either coming from
ISIS propaganda videos. Or in this case, it’s
coming from the US military and its own videos. So what you have are a
number of reporters who, due to very
significant constraints to operate on the
ground, particularly when areas were
held by ISIS– it’s a lot easier now
than it used to be. What you have are
reporters who are often relying on those videos. And so what you would often
have was these videos would get reported. Check out this incredible
airstrike on this IED facility. Hitting this IED
facility probably saved thousands of lives. There were so many car
bombs in this facility. Can you imagine? They’re relying on that
source of information. So I think both just as– in the absence of
information, as a means to counter those
videos, of course it’s effective in swaying the
population about the precision and limiting the kind of
information we’re getting. And ISIS is responsible
for that also. They limited cell phone
use in these places. So civilians were very rarely
able to tell their own stories. AUDIENCE: Thank you very
much for putting a human face on the civilian victims. Seeing the faces, be it
of Hiroshima survivors in World War II, in Vietnam,
in many, many other conflicts. But in this context, that’s
critically important. The analytic question. After all, we are
at MIT as well. To what extent do you
think that this conflict is different from all others? In the sense that, if you
look, for example, to Kosovo. More of a conventional conflict,
but heavy reliance on air war. A white population of Europeans
as distinct from a population of Middle Eastern folks. To what extent are standards
for care taken in targeting, and reimbursement or
compensation where an accident takes place,
civilians are killed, do you see differences? And I know that we
haven’t had that kind of systematic on the
ground investigation in many previous wars. But even on something as basic
as, if someone screws up, what are the thresholds
for providing compensation? And how often is it provided? Is this war different
from others with respect to even that basic factor. AZMAT KHAN: Yeah. So these condolence
payments originated first primarily during the Korean War. And they were just made often
as gestures of sympathy. Because that was the
culture, they said. That that was
common when somebody was killed, that these
payments would be made. And so there was an official
part of Army doctrine called solatia payments
that entered into use. But not necessarily
very popular use. It actually wasn’t until the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the aughts that these
became very popular and seen as incredibly strategic. And that was part of
counterinsurgency. So actually these
payments have been made in past wars, in
Iraq and Afghanistan, and these same populations. They’re no longer being made. So to my knowledge to date,
no Iraqi or Syrian civilian has accepted– there
have been very few offers made in the first place. But nobody has accepted the
offers that have been made. So since 2011, the United States
has not made a payment in Iraq for a civilian death. There was a payment made for
damage to a car, to property. But to compare it to
Kosovo and whether it’s a European population,
I think that– there was more ability
to navigate on the ground during the war in Kosovo. And so Bill Arkin– at the time he was at
Human Rights Watch– had done a really intensive
study on the ground that was him and Ken Roth. And it was quite incredible. Human rights
organizations have been able to visit some
sites of airstrikes. And I think Syria is a great
example of Human Rights Watch being able to get to
the sites of a few of them. But to do a systematic sample
in these war zones, it’s hard. But it’s not impossible. And I think you’re going to see
greater effort by human rights organizations in the
near future to try to do this as best as possible,
particularly in Afghanistan. I really think it goes back
to the public caring or not caring. And certainly there are
really interesting arguments that are often made when
there are attacks in Brussels versus an attack in Iraq. And I think that when we
can relate more to victims, we as Americans
tend to care more about that particular story. If we speak the same language,
we tend to care more. We tend to be interested more. When we see the representation
of their culture, whether we watch TV shows or we
see that country as something we– or the people of a country
as something we understand, we do tend to take
greater interest in it. And I do think that there’s
also a lot of exhaustion of previous wars in the past,
in Iraq and Afghanistan. So there is not the
level of attention that I think would require– that would elicit journalists or
even human rights organizations to make those– actually, I think human
rights organizations would do it regardless. But journalists in
particular, which are so responsive to what
the public is interested in, I think that’s the
determining factor. AUDIENCE: Thank you for your
great reporting and research. AZMAT KHAN: Thank you. AUDIENCE: You’ve been waiting
longer, but since you insist. Hugh Roberts, Tufts University. First of all, thank you very
much for your great article and this great talk. I was particularly
struck by a fact you gave us and its
possible implications. You’ve told us that the
coalition’s forces are not keeping proper logs
of their strikes. Now, that– you’ve presented
us with a piece of hard fact there. I think that’s of
great importance. And I have a series of sort
of follow up questions. First of all, why aren’t they? Do you have a hypothesis
about the explanation of this striking fact? Is it conscious
policy on their part? And second set of questions
would be, to how many– I mean, how widely
known now is this fact? Is it being taken up somewhere? For example, in Congress? I think this is an
extremely significant issue. So that’s my first thing I
wanted to get off my chest. Because I think it’s
extremely important what you’re telling us. The second thing is to
do with your observation that the people organizing
these airstrikes are treating people
down on the ground as guilty until proved innocent. And of course, it’s
virtually impossible for them to prove their innocence
before being killed. Or extremely difficult. And
it seems to me that that is– that reminds me of many similar
situations, particularly, of course, in
counterinsurgency wars, where the armies conducting
counterinsurgency operations simply refuse– or are completely
unable to distinguish between guerrilla forces
and the population that those forces come from. The water and the fish. But it seems to me that
there’s another issue here that I’d like to tease out,
which goes back to the question that I actually wrote down
before you began speaking as a thought I wanted to air. Given that we’re making an issue
of the killing of civilians, what is it that ensures
or has ensured in the past that the distinction between
combatants and civilians is respected? It seems to me that– and I can’t help linking
this to the observation that you said some Iraqis are
beginning to make that actually the Americans– and of
course, one could actually add in the Brits as well, in a
very small way– are barbarians these days. Because it seems to me that the
distinction between combatants and civilians was
completely abandoned during the Second World War. It seems to me it’s
been completely absent from virtually all the
numerous counterinsurgency wars that have taken place
since the Second World War. So I’m really raising the
question, isn’t it inevitable? That the terrible stories
you are telling us, are they not
actually inevitable? But maybe it’s the first
question that is perhaps more worthy of an answer. Because one would have thought
that if only some Congress or congressional committee
would be interested, at least in principle,
in the fact that logs are not being kept. But the reason why I wanted– just to finish. Sorry, I’m going on
a rather long time. I think I’m right in saying
that after the 1991 Iraq War, the enemy combatants– that’s to say,
the Iraqi soldiers who had been bombed into
mincemeat in their trenches– were not counted by the
victorious American commanders. And that I believe that’s
a violation of the Geneva Convention, isn’t it? So the question of uncounted
has quite a history. Thank you. AZMAT KHAN: Yeah, thank you. So to address the
incomplete logs. I’m so glad you find this
as interesting as I do. Because that was
the part that when I found that out, when I
sent those coordinates, I got those responses. I was like, are you kidding me? This is outrageous. How is this possible? You told me when I
was at your airbase, we have 100% authority
over all of our airstrikes. We have what no journalist does. It’s an exact quote. We have what no journalist does. We’re able to tell where all
of these airstrikes fall. You guys can’t. The implication
was always that– if they said, no, we
didn’t carry this out, the implication is it
was either the Iraqis or another force that did it. So it actually offers a lot
of leeway in your assuming, or my assuming, that
this wasn’t them. That they’re
incredibly accurate. That they’re more
accurate than the Iraqis. Et cetera, et cetera. So when I saw that there were
coordinates missing, that they were unable to track
their own airstrikes, I was incredibly concerned. I do know that there are
congressional officials involved in oversight who were
extremely concerned by that. I do know that there
is some kind of review happening right now. But it’s happening
behind closed doors. And when there is a review
behind closed doors, there’s very little
means for accountability based on whatever the
outcome of that review is. And so I find that
deeply troubling. It’s why it was such a large
part of this presentation. Very few people were
interested in it when I first started
talking about it. But I think it
matters, because when you don’t track them properly,
how can you assess anything? If you can’t assess
anything properly, how can you actually
know what’s happening? If you don’t know
what’s happening, how can you assess why? And if you’re not assessing
why, how can you prevent it? And so, I mean, this is right
up the coalition’s alley. In terms of why
they’re incomplete, part of my understanding
is the military started using this bizarre
method of categorizing airstrikes. Is that they will count multiple
airstrikes as one strike. And they’ll call each of those
airstrikes an engagement. And so they started
grouping things together, probably because of
the pace of airstrikes. There were so many
airstrikes that they just started batching them together
in these logs that they kept. Also another reason is that– this is a little convoluted,
but certain kinds of aircrafts– the Air Force aircrafts
and airstrikes called in via the
CAOC in Qatar– there is a consistent
method of tracking them. When there are battalions on
the ground that are calling them in to particular
areas, the means through which they track
them and provide coordinates is totally haphazard. In some cases they’re
provided in PDF form. And so they don’t enter logs. But there has been very little
accountability or reform to keep this better. And that’s been
happening for a while. So that latter
category of aircraft, these rotary aircrafts,
it’s a known problem. It’s been known for a while. To your second question about
the history of the uncounted, yes, this is not a
new problem at all. There is– and
John can of course talk about this at great length
including in his own sample. And I’d prefer you do,
because you’re really the scholar of that history. But certainly this has
always been the case. What I find interesting
in the patterns is if you look at
those previous wars, each time there
were these claims about precision and technology,
this being unprecedented– there’s a great quote right now
by a military official who’d recently said, this air
war is the most precise in the history of
aerial warfare. And it will be studied
for years to come. That’s what he said. If you look back
at that history, they touted this
exact same technology. They touted this precision. But what’s missed when you talk
about precision is actually just the reality of you
can hit the right target. But if your target is wrong
because the intelligence is wrong, that precision
doesn’t matter. Words like drone,
these kinds of videos, they imply this
sophisticated view, the sophisticated monitoring,
this sophisticated intelligence. But unless that intelligence
is made more transparent, unless that process is made
more transparent to the public, there’s very little
accountability over what’s happening. JOHN TIRMAN: I think there is– I’ll just add one
thought to that. And that is I think particularly
during Korea and Vietnam where this became a
big problem or a big– what I was going to say,
either a big problem or big opportunity,
actually, for the military, which is that they
didn’t have to account for civilian casualties. Because they would say, we
can’t tell the difference between fighters and civilians. They’re all dressed the same. They act the same. The fighters infiltrate among
the civilian populations. And of course, Korea, in
particular, people forget– because we don’t
study the Korean War, I think, in American
schools anyway very often. And it was a brutal
war in the south. Very densely
populated peninsula. A war that went on
for three-plus years. It was just incredibly hard
on the civilian population. They were being moved around. They were caught in between. So on in a very small space. And I think that
that sort of gave– not intentionally, but
sort of gave the military a kind of get out of jail
free card, basically. That you don’t have to
account for these things, because it is so difficult,
in fact, to account for them. And as Tommy Franks said about
Afghanistan many years later, we don’t do body counts. And for the most part it’s true
that they don’t do body counts. And it may be that
it’s not really their responsibility
to do body counts. That is, it should be somebody–
some other agency within the US government that doesn’t have
the interest or the bias that the military
inevitably would have. So it’s a big complicated topic. But I did want to
make that one point. AUDIENCE: Thank you, Azmat. I have a question from Facebook. And then I have a
question myself. The one from Facebook is from– I may not say the
first name right. But it’s from Shaukat Khan. And this person’s question
is, how difficult was it for you to go to war
ravaged cities in Iraq and other places? And please comment on the
people living in those areas. Did they benefit from
our intervention? AZMAT KHAN: OK, so I
only laughed at the name, because that’s
actually my dad’s name. But based on that question,
I don’t think that’s my dad. [LAUGHTER] But for a second I
was really excited. I still am. Thank you, Shaukat Khan. So the first part of it was– the second part was
did they benefit. What was the first part? Did they– AUDIENCE: How difficult was
it for you going to those– AZMAT KHAN: Oh, right. AUDIENCE: –war ravaged areas. AZMAT KHAN: Yeah, I mean, I
think that sometimes there are advantages to being a
woman in some of these places. You’re seen as
relatively harmless instead of being detained
by some of these security personnel. They would have tea
with me instead. There’s like a kind of
formality and guest reception that you get, which made it– I think that was an advantage
that maybe some male reporters didn’t have. I think that it was– I would go in with different
people at different times. So for example, in
Qaiyara, the town that I showed you, the
first time I went in, I went in with a
local blacksmith. The second time I went in,
I’d gone with a local member of the police. The third– the federal police. The third time, it was
with a local sheikh. And going in with locals made
it a lot easier to operate. Somebody familiar to them
like an ordinary blacksmith. Going door to door with him
made my job a lot easier. I think that there’s also a
kind of interviewing style that is sensitive to
survivors of trauma that makes it a little bit easier. I never encountered any
hostility from these people in these places,
these civilians. I certainly encountered lots of
permissions and access issues. When I was fearful
of my safety, it was not often–
it was rarely ever because of the local population. It was often just– who commands this area? Who’s in the authority here? To what extent might the fact
that I’m a Western reporter make me a target for
any particular reason? Yes, that’s the answer to that. So it wasn’t especially hard. But did they benefit
from our intervention? There are new roads. There are new schools. There are new health clinics. There is infrastructure. But– and that’s how often– that’s often how the
US government, when you look at these wars,
has compiled statistics on the progress of these wars. A few years ago I
did an investigation called ghost schools
into US education efforts in Afghanistan. It was a sample of 50 US-funded
schools in seven battlefield provinces across Afghanistan,
just to test, well, where are these schools today? How are they today? Did they operate? Did they function? And what I found was that the
statistics about these schools were often touted as some
of the only successes. When there were Senate hearings
on the war in Afghanistan, it would be the one thing
consistently invoked. But the reality
on the ground was that a tenth of these schools
had either never been built or weren’t operating. And a majority of them
were falling apart. More than that, when you
talk about infrastructure, and nation building, and
just even the semblance of a government that is local
to these people and something they want, the success
of education efforts is entirely dependent
on that infrastructure, on that actual– those roots being local. And when you throw
vast swaths of money that disrupts the local
economy, when you empower a generation of
warlords, some of whom conduct serious human rights
abuses, when you create this vast bureaucracy
that inflates some at the expense of others,
you’re really not creating the kind of ground
situation that makes sustainable education
or health care a reality. Not to mention that you’re
living in constant war. I mean, Afghanistan has–
it’s been more dangerous for civilians in recent
years than it ever has been. And so when we talk about
whether local populations– and you can see this in Iraq. If you’re just talking
about loss of life, it raises serious
questions about what the benefits over the
long term actually are. AUDIENCE: I’ll go ahead
and ask my question. AZMAT KHAN: Yeah. AUDIENCE: You shared that
one thing that could possibly bring change is if the public
could show that we cared. So what are some practical ways
that we can show that we care? AZMAT KHAN: OK, so
before I say anything, I just want to be clear. I’m a journalist. I can’t advocate
that you do anything. But I can tell you how
people have expressed this and what really matters. And where I’ve seen
traction is certain congressional representatives
can bring this up. And they can hold hearings. They can send letters
to the military. They can ask for answers. And of course, you can
go to your congressional representative. You can go to your senator. And you can tell them
you’re interested in this. You can also try to get
information yourself, right? You can file requests under
the Freedom of Information Act. Either your own, or
you can file letters of support for
journalists and others who are trying to
get this information and are making the case
that the public cares. It’s hard on an individual
level, because so much of this is about movements,
and coalition building, and the fact if you look
at just the successes of anti-war movements
in the past, it’s really been the
force of grassroots groups and organizers coming together. And so when I
think about this, I think about how the costs
of war and that shift– when we’re not feeling
them, what does it take to make people act? And to actually– I
mean, there hasn’t been widespread
anti-war protests even though we’ve had constant
war for years and years. That ended when
troops came back home. And so really the main– the different factors,
I guess, to study– and this is something– I’m actually working on
a book right now looking at the ramifications of
this shift to this air war. And one of the
things I’m doing is I’m going back through
history to compare some of these past
movements to today. And to try to understand–
when we look at Vietnam, the height of the civilian– most of the civilian
protections that we have today came out of, really,
the failures of Vietnam. Well, where the patterns? What today matches
with that past? And certainly when you see these
vastly different numbers, where the government is reporting
one thing and the reality is altogether
something different. And you question whether
this is a cover up or what’s behind
that distinction. I’m looking for where
there are patterns and where there are differences. Because I think that’s
key to people caring. And so as much as anybody can
do is to really call attention to it and try to get– try to make this become
a political issue. But that’s always
been about grassroots, and coalition building,
and organized movements. AUDIENCE: Just from a
technology standpoint, are there any tools that
a citizenry in a war zone can actually implement
to say, we’re civilians. And we– through either a social
media platform or some platform to say, hey, you
know, US government, this geographic area
should not be looked at as a potential target? Or maybe some kind of mechanism
that would actually forewarn people in a certain area? AZMAT KHAN: So
that’s tough, right? Because you’re
looking at populations that were denied the
use of cell phones. And if you are caught
with a cell phone, you could wind up
shot or killed. You could wind up imprisoned. And that was often
the case under ISIS. So people had very little means
to even communicate, let alone broadcast publicly. So it’s tough. It’s really tough to do that. But then you’re also
then requiring people to attest to their innocence. If you look at the laws of
war, and you even just look at the definition
of civilian, there’s something known as the
presumption of civilian status, which is– when it’s
unclear whether or not somebody is a civilian,
our government is supposed to presume
that they are a civilian. That’s their designation. That’s what they should be
called when it’s unclear. And so I think there would
be many theorists who might hear what you’re
saying and think, actually, now
you’re forcing them to attest to their
innocence instead of allowing them the presumption
of innocence beforehand. AUDIENCE: May I? AZMAT KHAN: Mm-hmm. AUDIENCE: I’m just looking
at the picture up there. And I see that
identification card. And if there was some way in
which the citizenry could say, hey, you know, I’m not
ISIS, or I’m not this, and get that voice
out before the fact that they become a
refugee or displaced– AZMAT KHAN: So this
is so interesting. Because Basim Razzo,
that character whom I introduced
at the beginning, he had been visited–
next to his house was what had been
military barracks. And so in 2003, when a
unit of the American forces came and stayed in those
barracks, when soldiers didn’t have email– like, one knocked
on his door and had him send an email to his
mother in the United States. They came over for tea. Basim spoke fluent English. They tried to hire
him as a translator and tried to hire him even as
an engineer for the engineering corps. He is in military
records most likely as a totally innocent civilian. That didn’t make a difference
when you’re looking at what happened to him. Now, look at the
airstrike in Kunduz from 2015 in Afghanistan. Similarly, that
was an MSF clinic. Its coordinates
were in the system. It was not supposed to be hit. There is a disconnect in terms
of retaining that information. And if you’re
looking at just even the scale of these
airstrikes– remember, there have been 14,000 in Iraq. But each of those can be made
up of multiple engagements. So the number of
actual airstrikes is much higher than 14,000. It’s significantly higher. We don’t know the exact
number of engagements. But you’re looking at tens of
thousands of these airstrikes. And the expectation
that for each one they’re going to be going
through some database, which we would think would be
something that they would do. But if they’re not even
logging coordinates accurately, or there’s not a complete record
of coordinates in their logs, what expectation can
you have realistically that if you were even to
compile that information that it would be used appropriately? AUDIENCE: Thank you. JOHN TIRMAN: I think we
have time for one more. AUDIENCE: Thanks so much for
you report and talk today. You mentioned the air base in
Qatar and meeting US officials and coalition officials. And you also mentioned
civilians’ mostly, I guess, inability to get their stories
across and get their voices heard. So part of what you said was
like, using the same language or having access to people in
more positions of authority. So in your own
research, what do you think– or like,
what did you find to be actual open
channels for communication where people can get
their stories across? That’s for number one. My second question is regarding
the US’s actual involvement in Iraq. The US for the most
part maintains– and, I guess, downplays their
involvement on the ground. And they deem it as– the most they admit to
is support positions on the ground, while
it’s mostly air strikes. While there are– and we
know from local sources there are many credible stories
of actual troops on the ground and occupation of
certain bases in Iraq, in addition to heavy machinery
used by the US military. So why do you think does the
US downplay its involvement or completely denies its
involvement on the ground? AZMAT KHAN: So how Iraqis or
civilians, ordinary civilians, can get their stories across. I mean, yeah, for many
people it’s just as simple as a language barrier. If you look at just
news in general and the way it’s
reported, there is a skew towards English
speakers in general. It’s easier to access their
stories and their information. But if you’re asking about how
these individuals can report what happened to them
to the US government, there is no formal
mechanism for that today. That is not– there is
no established route. There is no means
for them to do so. And one of the
reasons that’s often cited when I asked the
military why is related to your second question. They’ll often tell me that– listen, we don’t have the
infrastructure to do that. Because we’re no longer
operating on the ground in the ways we used to. We used to have these facilities
where people could come in. Now we don’t really have that. And so that’s
what’s often cited. And you’re right that
there is a limited number– there’s actually a
cap on the number of American military personnel
that are allowed to be in Iraq. And so primarily they say– the
exact term they use is equip. You know, this kind of train,
advise, assist type program that they’re using. And there are raids. There was a raid in Hawija. There have been
certain special forces that have gone into
particular areas. And some military
officials have been able to get closer to
some of these sites as a result of that December
directive, that December 2016 directive. But in terms of their actual
presence on the ground, they’re relying heavily
on their Iraqi partners, whether that’s the Iraqi
army, or the Peshmerga, or other forces. And what you have is the
possibility of this argument that, oh, because we’re
not on the ground, our intelligence isn’t as good. But if you look
at previous wars, even when there were
Americans on the ground, there were still significant
problems with intelligence, or relying on local
actors who may have had their own
incentives to call in an airstrike on their enemy. And so it’s complicated,
in that I don’t envision, or I don’t imagine that
the United States is willing to send a
significant number of people to Iraq the way
they might have been in the past, when there
are questions about Assad’s use of chemical weapons. That sort of option
is not on the table. It’s far more
convenient, in fact, to conduct a campaign
of airstrikes. When we used to detain,
arrest and detain, it introduced a host
of problems when it comes to running
prisons, when it comes to
questions of torture, when it comes to detainee abuse. It’s far more
politically expedient– many analysts will say it’s
far more politically expedient to kill rather than capture. To maintain this
presence from the air and not operate on the ground. And so it’s a very
convenient effort. But one of the
ramifications of that is, of course, that this war
goes unchecked in many ways, or at least relative
to past wars. Not that those were– that there was some great
degree of accountability either. But it’s something that, when
we think about– the biggest ramification is that Americans
don’t even really realize that there’s a war
going on, that there’s this campaign of
tens of thousands of airstrikes in
these countries. And as a result, there is
very little accountability. Thank you. JOHN TIRMAN: Thank
you for coming today. And let’s thank our
guest, Azmat Khan. AZMAT KHAN: Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Thanks for having me.

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