The uncounted victims from Iraq to Afghanistan

February 14, 2018

For years, Anand Gopal has been reporting on the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and beyond. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his first book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and War Through Afghan Eyes, and has written for various news publications, including Harper's and The Atlantic.

In November, the New York Times Magazine published "The Uncounted," co-authored by Gopal and journalist Azmat Khan, which debunks the Pentagon's low estimation of the number of civilians killed by U.S. air strikes in Iraq. Gopal talked to Eric Ruder about his work on "The Uncounted"--and about the reasons why the U.S. war on Afghanistan grinds on.

THE KEY finding of your recent article "The Uncounted" for the New York Times Magazine is that the U.S. has systematically and dramatically understated the number of civilians killed by U.S. air strikes in Iraq. Can you talk about your work on this article, and what impact it's had on the discourse about casualties caused by the U.S.?

IT WAS published in November, and it was the result of almost two years' worth of investigation on the ground.

It got started because we were listening to press conferences by the American-led coalition saying things like, "We've dropped 6,000 bombs in Iraq and Syria, killed 10,000 ISIS fighters, and 100 civilians." These numbers just seemed absurd on the face of it.

If they had said nothing about the exact number of civilians that they claimed to have killed, we wouldn't probably have done anything. But because they were so precise in the numbers they gave, it just begged for somebody to go on the ground and see what the reality was.

So that's what we--my reporting partner, Azmat Khan, and I--did over the course of almost two years.

Civilians walk through the streets of Mosul after months of U.S. air strikes
Civilians walk through the streets of Mosul after months of U.S. air strikes (Tasnim News | Wikimedia Commons)

We visited the sites of 103 air strikes in northern Iraq--basically areas around Mosul and inside Mosul--and we tried to capture a representative sample of the types of places that would be struck. We basically went house to house, we went into each area and mapped it out.

And it's tricky because there's a lot of destruction in these places, so you've got to figure out what's caused by air strikes and what's caused by ground fighting. Sometimes, ISIS is blowing things up, and sometimes, people are blowing things up in retaliation against ISIS. You have to kind of sort through all of that, so it took some time to do that.

We did probably thousands of interviews to get to finding out which structures, which houses in each town were actually struck by aircraft. In the course of doing that, it turned out that the number of civilian deaths that we found was 31 times higher than what the coalition says. And that's probably an undercount as well.

IF THERE'S one rule of war, it's that governments lie, to quote the journalist I.F. Stone. But this is a big, bold lie that differs from reality by a whole order of magnitude.

ABSOLUTELY, AND the fact that they thought they could get away with it is really what was shocking--because all you needed to do was go on the ground and spend some time, and you see a very different story emerge.

Even the 31 times number is, I think, a very conservative estimate, because any time there was any sort of doubt that it may not have been a civilian or other circumstances, we didn't count it as part of the civilians--we counted it as part of ISIS. So the real number is probably even higher.

It just goes to show the extraordinary levels of destruction that the war against ISIS has brought in Iraq and Syria--and this is a war that was designed and implemented initially by Barack Obama, then taken over by Donald Trump and essentially carried out without many modifications at all.

THE CENTRAL character that your article revolves around lost his family and his home to a U.S. air strike. You help him apply for benefits under a U.S. compensation fund set up for civilians who are victims of U.S. military strikes. Incredibly, this program had never before paid out any benefits. Can you tell us more about this man's story?

SURE, HIS name is Basim Razzo, and he's an engineer who was born and grew up in Mosul. He actually came to the U.S. in the late 1970s and lived in Michigan for eight years with his wife, Mayada. His wife was actually an Avon lady.

They moved back to Iraq in 1988 to care for his ailing parents, so he lived through the 1991 Gulf War, through the sanctions, through the invasion and the occupation, and through civil war. He had seen everything that you could possibly imagine--and through it all, he survived, had two children and lived in a pretty big house, next door to his brother, who had an identical house.

One night in September 2015, he said goodnight to his wife and daughter and went up to bed. When he woke up, the roof over his head was missing. He never saw his wife or daughter again--they were killed. It was an American air strike.

Basim, because he lived in the U.S., had a little bit more of a sense of what he might be able to achieve by trying to track down the Americans and the coalition to try to get some justice.

And here's the astonishing thing: The reason Basim came to the U.S. in the 1970s was because it was so hard to get into some of the top universities in Iraq. They were at such a high standard--Mosul University was like the Harvard of Iraq--that you had Iraqis who would come to American universities, because they were easier to get into.

The infrastructure, the standard of living in Iraq in the '70s, was one of the best in the Middle East. The change from then to now is a testament to the complete destruction of this country, first brought on by Saddam, and then on by the United States.

You would think that anybody who lived through that would really hate the U.S. But what makes Basim different is because he lived among Americans, he is able to differentiate between ordinary Americans and the actions of the U.S. government.

He would tell me this all the time. He would say, "I want to hate Americans, but I have too many American friends, so instead, I know the difference between the two, and I understand there are policies that the American government does that ordinary people don't really have a say in."

HOW DID you come to know Basim?

AZMAT KNEW somebody related to him, and through this person, we met Basim.

This was six or seven months after the air strike, and he had already been doggedly trying to get justice. And he believed that the U.S. government would give him justice, because there's these laws on the books, as you pointed out--that if a relative is wrongfully killed, you're entitled to a condolence payment.

He had lost pretty much everything--his entire livelihood, he was injured, he couldn't go back to work. He tried for months and months to get the attention of the American officials in the U.S. Embassy, and he failed. And he was better positioned to do that than most Iraqis, because he spoke English and had all these contacts, but he still failed.

It was only because both of us--two New York Times journalists--got involved that the coalition started to pay attention to him.

But there are thousands of cases like this. Every time we met somebody on the ground who had lost loved ones and interviewed them, one of the first things they'd ask is: "How can we reach the coalition or the Americans?" They don't even know how to do that, and these people have lost their houses and their livelihood.

So one of the things that we did, which is not reported in the story, is to collect the contact information of everybody who we've interviewed who lost loved ones, and we've passed all that along to the coalition--which claims that it does everything it can to investigate cases and rectify injustices. But none of those claims have been answered--none of these people have ever heard a word from the coalition.

YOUR REPORTING focused on the killings of civilians by U.S. air strikes during a particular time period?

FROM 2014 onward, and these are generally not drone strikes, they're old-fashioned air strikes--B-52s and F-15s and B-1 bombers and all of that.

HOW MANY air strikes has the U.S. carried out in its own estimation?

ABOUT 15,000.

YOU AND your colleague then used statistical sampling analysis to generate an estimate of the total number of civilians killed in these 15,000 air strikes based on the number of civilians you found had been killed in the 103 randomly selected air strikes you studied. What was the Pentagon's response when you presented them with your findings?

COMPLETE SILENCE. We sent them everything weeks, if not months, beforehand. Normally, the Pentagon is very quick to get back to reporters. In our case, we sent basically a dossier of everything we found, and we heard absolutely nothing.

In the end, just hours before publication, because we wanted a comment from them, they finally sent us something, which was essentially a very general statement saying they do everything they can to address civilian casualties, but they've never actually specifically addressed what we found at all.

SOME OF your research revolved around videos of these air strikes that the U.S. military had itself posted to YouTube. Then, once you started reporting on these videos, they started pulling the videos down. Can you talk about that?

IN FACT, the air strike that killed Basim's family was recorded by the coalition and uploaded on YouTube. It was claimed to be a strike on a car bomb factory. We showed it to Basim, and you could clearly see that it was his house.

When we finally told the coalition this is what they did, they didn't really say anything about it, but they took it down. After that, all their videos from YouTube started to get taken down.

What's interesting is the reason they took it down. Beyond the fact that it was embarrassing, you can leave comments on these videos on YouTube, and on Basim's video, there were comments from the family members, calling them murderers and saying, "This is not ISIS, this is a civilian family."

We think the reason they took it down is because of the comments, because there are other Web sites where the videos are still up--for example, on the Pentagon's own Web site, it's still up. You can't leave comments there, so the places where you can leave comments they've taken it down.

WHAT HAS the fallout been from the release of your story? The Pentagon may have essentially ignored you, but what about feedback from other journalists or institutions--or from families that experienced the same tragedy as Basim's family?

WE'VE GOTTEN a lot of positive feedback, especially from Iraqis, from families, from other researchers, from Human Rights Watch, from journalists. And I have friends in Afghanistan who are asking how they can reproduce that kind of study there. Probably, there's one that needs to be done in Syria as well.

So in that sense, we've gotten a lot of positive feedback. Where we haven't seen a lot of positive feedback or movement is in terms of real change.

There have been letters written by congressional representatives, especially on the question of payments for families, because this is on the books, and there's money appropriated for this that's sitting there. So certain people in Congress have asked: "What's going to happen to this money? Why aren't they being paid?"

But at the end of the day, this article is coming out in a context in which there really isn't an antiwar movement at all. Most people aren't connected in an immediate way to what's happening over there. I think a lot of people don't even know that the U.S. is waging this kind of war.

Unfortunately, in the absence of a really strong antiwar movement that can make real demands, I think a piece like this can create conversation, but to take it to the next level, beyond what journalism can do, there needs to be a movement. Journalism can play a really small role, but the real role is played by movements.

As an example of this, consider the way in which we talk in this country about civilian casualties. The reason why the U.S. was putting out statements in 2014 or 2015 saying we dropped 10,000 bombs, and killed 5,000 ISIS fighters and 100 civilians is that they want to portray their military as sparing civilians.

That wasn't always the case. For example, in the Korean War, the U.S. was pretty openly stating that they were destroying everything there was. You can go look at some of the comments made by Dean Acheson, who was then Secretary of State. The United States essentially destroyed every brick-and-mortar facility in North Korea at that time.

So when Donald Trump says that he wants to completely destroy North Korea, that would be the second time the U.S. has done that.

But with the Vietnam War, there was actually a shift in norms because there was a very powerful movement against the war and against the My Lai massacre and all of the other things that happened in that conflict--to the point where the U.S. had to shift how it talked about what it was doing overseas in terms of protecting civilians.

We're still living in that paradigm in some ways, which was won by the antiwar movement during the U.S. war on Vietnam.

That's the big difference between the Russians and the United States, for example. The Russians are killing a lot of civilians in Syria, but they never had an anti-Vietnam War movement that could force the ruling elites of Russia to have to talk about civilian casualties in the same way.

That just goes to show the lasting power of an antiwar movement. If we had one today, I think that the impact of a piece like ours would be very different.

RETURNING TO Basim's story, he turned down what they offered him. Can you explain why?

THEY OFFERED Basim $15,000 for the deaths of his wife and his daughter, the destruction of his house and his car, and everything else. And that was actually more than they are normally allowed to offer. This was a special dispensation, because of this investigation. Of course, Basim felt this to be an insult, so he turned it down.

I was with Basim in the meeting when they made the offer, and he was just completely stunned--stunned, after a year and a half of fighting for some kind of justice, to finally sit in the same room with representatives of the U.S. military and essentially be told that his whole life was worth, at best, $15,000 to them.

When we came out, we were driving away in the car, and he just stared ahead and wouldn't talk. Then, at some point, he just turned to me and said, "So, this is what an Iraqi's worth."

YOUR POINT about the absence of an antiwar movement to compel the Pentagon and the political establishment to pay some kind of price for waging their wars seems particularly relevant to understanding how the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is now the longest war the U.S. has ever been involved in.

After nearly 17 years of war, the Taliban, which the U.S. drove from power back in late 2001, is now, according to a recent headline, basically contending for or in control of about 70 percent of the country. In late January, more than 100 people were people were killed in Kabul by a massive bomb hidden in an ambulance.

Like Iraq, this is another war started by George W. Bush, continued by Barack Obama, and now inherited by the Trump administration, and through which it's possible to see the relative decline of U.S. control of the Middle East and Central Asia. Could you talk about what's different and what's the same in Afghanistan, where you've also done a lot of reporting, compared to Iraq?

RIGHT NOW, the air campaign in Afghanistan is at its highest point in many years. Whereas in Syria and Iraq, where there's really no difference in the policy between Donald Trump and Barack Obama, there is a bit of a difference in Afghanistan, in that Trump has escalated there.

I think Obama was okay with just maintaining a low-level war in that country. Let the Afghans do the fighting, the U.S. will keep the population centers like Kabul and Kandahar city and have a few bases here and there, basically in perpetuity. I think that was Obama's essential plan.

Trump has escalated in Afghanistan, so we're seeing a lot of cases of civilian casualties. Just the other day, there was news of 30 civilians killed in an air strike in Kandahar. There are more stories of war crimes being committed by American proxy forces and, in some cases, by American forces.

So things are really heating up there. But what's especially jarring in all that is that it doesn't mean that the fundamental dynamic of the conflict has changed in any way.

Basically, the Taliban are predominant in most of the rural countryside, especially in the south and the east--and now increasingly in the north as well. The Afghan government is essentially clinging to cities and certain outposts.

As long as the U.S. continues to prop up the Afghan government, then the Taliban probably won't be strong enough to march into Kabul and take it over. At the same time, the Afghan government and the U.S. government are not going to be able to go into the villages and root out the Taliban.

So we're still looking at a war in perpetuity. It's gone on for 17 years. I see no reason why it won't continue for another 17 years.

WHAT WOULD have to happen to end this war?

I THINK that would have to happen here. The situation on the ground in Afghanistan is not going to end this war.

Again, this goes back to the question of an antiwar movement. If there was a major antiwar movement, I think Afghanistan would be the easiest war to stop of all the wars the United States is involved in, because it's the least important war for the U.S.

WHAT MAKES it least important?

IT'S NOT unimportant. But when there are so many wars, you rank them, and this one is less important than Iraq and Syria, and I'll explain why.

The war in Iraq on the immediate level is about ISIS. But on a much deeper level, it's about having a foothold in a very strategically important region. Oil, of course, is one major reason for that. Also, it's a huge strategic rivalry with Iran.

Then there are the alliances that the United States has with Qatar and Saudi Arabia and so forth. All of that comes to a head in a place like Iraq.

That's even more the case in Syria. One of the main reasons why the United States is so intent on staying in Syria, keeping its bases there and backing the Kurdish forces of the PYD is because it's worried that the regime will take over, and that will mean a larger footprint for Iran and also Russia, which are its strategic rivals.

So for those reasons, the rivalries between Iran and Russia are the most acute in places like Syria and Iraq. Afghanistan can really be thought of as almost a frontier of the empire.

IT'S SITTING on the edge of the empire.

IT'S LITERALLY on the edge. Of course, the U.S. wants to keep bases there. Iran is a neighboring country, China is there. But if the U.S. was going to give up anything, it would give up Afghanistan. The reason it hasn't is because there is no political cost to continuing this war. And financially, they're happy to spend the money on this war.

SO AS long as they avoid having U.S. soldiers killed and compel the Afghan military forces to do the fighting, they can just bomb the place--it may cost money but it doesn't carry with it any severe political costs. And in the absence of a movement to focus outrage at the atrocities being committed, they can live with that.

And insofar as it causes a situation that gives them a certain pretext for maintaining this outpost, they basically have a forward operating base that, in the event that things do turn hot in North Korea or China or what have you, there they are.

AND WITH the economic costs, they're spending money, but it's not a humanitarian endeavor. There are a lot of people getting rich off this thing. The Beltway bandits, the defense contractors--there are powerful interests in Washington that would love to see this continue basically forever.

I IMAGINE there are also some powerful interests in Afghanistan that would like it to continue.

THE ENTIRE Afghan ruling class exists because of this war. If there's anybody who's terrified of a peace settlement, it's the Afghan elite--from the government and the president on down to the class of warlords created by the American invasion. All of these people owe their very existence to the continuation of the conflict.

Which is why every time things look like they might be shifting here in Washington, you see Afghan elites starting to raise a hue and cry about ISIS, or this or that threat, to get the U.S. to pay attention to Afghanistan.

WHICH REINFORCES your point that there would have to be a movement here to end this war. The people who don't want it to continue are the kind of everyday civilians, people who are living in the rural areas, people who are the poor and marginalized workers in the cities.

There's no one telling the United States to end this war from that side. The only people who have an interest in that are those who are dying under the bombs, but their voices are quiet and easy to ignore.

EVEN IF, say, there were a huge protest movement in Afghanistan tomorrow, how would that affect the United States? Afghanistan is really caught in a very terrible position.

And the Taliban aren't the Vietnamese resistance--in any way. They are way more corrupt and less of an effective fighting force.

IN OTHER words, they aren't really leading a national liberation movement.

THEY AREN'T leading a national liberation movement. They don't have the popular support, especially in the cities, which you would need to be able to overthrow the Afghan government militarily. So that's the problem; This war isn't going to end from Afghanistan. It has to end from here.

WAS THERE ever a time when it seemed like the United States was in a position to "win" in this war? As a late January New York Times headline put it, "We Can't Win in Afghanistan Because We Don't Know Why We're There." I think there's now a sense that the war effort is perhaps going worse than it ever has.

NO, I think that's not true. The U.S. lost this war in 2004. So everything after 2004 has pretty much been some permutation of the same thing.

The U.S. had won this war in 2001. It defeated the Taliban, and it actually had popular support. The Taliban was not a popularly supported government. So there were a lot of people who actually looked forward to a more inclusive, more democratic government that they thought the American invasion would usher in.

THAT WAS how the U.S. described its own intentions, even if it never intended to carry them out. But it's understandable why people were hopeful.

OF COURSE--because what do Afghans know about the U.S. except that they were the people who helped them fight against the Soviet Union's barbaric occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s?

But what happened was that the United States invaded in late 2001, overthrew the Taliban in two months and effectively won the war. But instead of putting in place a democratic or inclusive government, they basically put a group of warlords into power.

The Taliban had all surrendered and gone home, but the U.S. was there fighting a "war on terror" and creating enemies where there were none--torturing innocent people, sending innocent people to Guantanamo, bombing houses. This essentially reconstituted the Taliban, by the very actions of the U.S.

So they created the insurgency that they're fighting to this day. There was a two-year period in 2002 and 2003 where that could have gone differently, had they just left or something.

BUT THAT would defeat the whole purpose as far as the United States was concerned. The point was and is to create a stable outpost friendly to the U.S. in Afghanistan.

RIGHT. THE idea at the time was that Afghanistan was the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. First Afghanistan...

THOSE WERE the days of the neocons--Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. They said that they were going to roll through the whole Middle East--start with the low-hanging fruit in Afghanistan, then Iraq and Iran. Meanwhile, they were praising Bashar al-Assad in Syria as a reformist.

AROUND THAT period, Assad and Qaddafi were getting rehabilitated, because they were implementing neoliberal reforms--especially Assad. He was opening up the economy to investment banks and stuff.

So Syria and Libya were a different question. The real targets were always Iraq and Iran. Iran was always the goal.

WASN'T THEIR slogan: "Anyone can go to Baghdad, but real men go to Tehran?"

EXACTLY. SO the idea of the Rumsfeld doctrine was that you just have a light force on the ground, overthrow the government, put in a client state, and move on to the next one. It seemed to work really well for about two months--but then here we are.

Transcription by Jordan Weinstein and Rebecca Anshell Song

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