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.


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.


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: 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--


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.


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.


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: 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.


Thanks for having me.