The New York Times revealed in December that the deaths of thousands of civilians killed in US drone strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria from 2014‒21, were covered up by the Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations.
The series of articles, by reporter Azmat Kahn, are based on internal Pentagon documents, as well as on-the-ground reporting from dozens of air-strike sites and interviews with scores of survivors.
Kahn writes: “The trove of documents — the military’s own confidential assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties, obtained by The New York Times — lays bare how the air war has been marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, and the deaths of thousands of civilians many of them children, a sharp contrast to the American government’s image of war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs …
“The air campaign represents a fundamental transformation of warfare that took shape in the final years of the Obama administration, amid the deepening unpopularity of the forever wars that had claimed more than 6,000 American service members.
“The United States traded many boots on the ground for an arsenal of aircraft directed by controllers sitting at computers, often thousands of miles away.
“President Obama called it ‘the most precise air campaign in history’.
“This was the promise: American ‘extraordinary technology’ would allow the military to kill the right people while taking the greatest possible care not to harm the wrong people.”
“The August  drone strike in Kabul that killed an Afghan aid worker and nine of his relatives grabbed the world’s attention,” Kahn writes.
“But most American air strikes took place far from the cities, in remote areas where cameras were not filming, mobile lines were often cut and the internet was non-existent.”
Seventy percent of Afghans live in rural areas.
“America’s longest war was, in many ways, its least transparent,” writes Kahn.
“For years, these rural battlefields were largely off-limits to American reporters. But after the Taliban returned to power in August, Afghanistan hinterlands opened up.
“The Times arrived in Barang [in the Band-e-Timor Area of Afghanistan] a little over a month later, visiting 15 households in this hamlet of mud homes and farmland, and also interviewing tribal elders and others across Band-e-Timor. Most said they had never spoken to a journalist before.
“The accounts they gave — consistently and reliably — help explain how America lost the country, how its war of airstrikes and support of corrupt security forces [of the puppet government] paved the way for the Taliban’s return.
“On average, each household lost five civilian family members. An overwhelming majority of these deaths were caused by airstrikes, most during [security forces] raids. Many people admitted they had relatives who were Taliban fighters, but civilians accounted for most of those lost:
“A father killed in an airstrike while running for the forest. A nephew killed while he slept with his flock of sheep. An uncle shot by American soldiers while he went to a bazar to buy okra for dinner.
“At the sound of helicopters, Hajji Muhammad Ismail Agha’s sons had bounded for the desert. The ‘foreign helicopters’ fired on them. One son, Nour Muhammad, was killed; the other, Hajji Muhammad, survived. ‘How could the planes tell the difference between a civilian and a Taliban?’ The father asked. ‘He was killed just a little far from here. I watched it happen.’
“None of these incidents were mentioned in Pentagon news releases. Few were tallied in United Nations counts. So isolated from the Afghan government were residents that when asked for their loved one’s death certificates, they asked where they might obtain them. Instead, to verify deaths, The Times visited tombstones in graveyards littered across the desert.”
This account reaffirms what other reporters who visited rural Afghanistan wrote in a November article in the New Yorker, “The Other Afghan Women”. The Taliban were supported because they were fighting the Americans and their bombing, as well as the “security forces”.
This explains how the Taliban built up steady support in the rural areas, eventually surrounding cities. When they then attacked cities, the corrupt government forces — without the US bombing — melted away.
The series predominantly covers the more than 50,000 air strikes conducted by the US, mostly in its campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, from 2015‒17.
“Repeatedly, the [military’s] documents point to the psychological phenomenon of ‘confirmation bias’ — the tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms pre-existing belief,” writes Kahn.
“People streaming toward a fresh bombing site were assumed to be ISIS fighters, not civilian rescuers. Men on motorcycles moving ‘in formation’ displaying the ‘signature’ of an imminent attack, were just men on motorcycles.
“Often, the danger to civilians is lost in the cultural gulf separating American soldiers and the local populous. ‘No civilian presence’ was detected when in fact families were sleeping through the days of Ramadan fast, sheltering inside against the midsummer swelter or gathering in a single house for protection when the fighting intensified.
“In many cases, civilians were visible in surveillance footage, but their presence was either not observed by analysts or was not noted in the communications before a strike.
“In chat logs accompanying some assessments, soldiers can sound as if they are playing video games, in one case expressing glee over getting to fire in an area ostensibly ‘poppin’ with ISIS fighters — without spotting the children in their midst.”
There are many other examples. Two of note were the battles to retake Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, the former bombed into a “necropolis” and the latter reduced to a pile of rubble, with many civilian deaths.
The second article in the series, “The Human Toll of America’s Air Wars”, details typical case studies.
Azmat Kahn told DemocracyNow! on December 22: “What I often found in examining the records, looking at these strikes on the ground, interviewing people, and really going in-depth, was that there were patterns of failure that they really couldn’t investigate or understand without being on the ground, that they had limited view from where they were looking…
“And after a while, once you see that over and over and over, you do have to ask whether this is really a system of accountability or whether it is designed to function as a system of impunity…”
War on terror continues
Reading through the series, there is one inescapable conclusion: the US killing of thousands of civilians, including children, was deliberately built into the lackadaisically poor intelligence, slap-dash targeting, lack of accountability, and cover-up.
Sanctions — used against Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and other countries that reject US domination — are also acts of war, even if US military might and financial control prevents retaliation.
These sanctions target the populations, who bear the brunt of suffering caused by them.
The imperialists hope that by severely hurting these populations, they will turn against their governments, and install pro-US regimes. This is wishful thinking.
The US is now targeting the people of Afghanistan for defeating it and its puppet government in the war.
Under US occupation, Afghanistan’s economy became dependent on funding from the US — and other rich countries to a lesser extent — to stay afloat. With the “loss” of the country, the US has frozen all that aid.
The result is a severe economic crisis, including mass starvation. Children are not spared. Malnourished mothers’ milk runs dry. International human rights agencies say that about 5 million children five-years-old and under face starvation in the coming weeks.
Kahn’s reports of the civilian toll of Afghans by the US air war was in the same mold as sanctions; an attempt to bomb the people into submission that backfired.
Back in August, after the last US troops were airlifted from Kabul, Biden said: “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.”
According to a January 1 NYT report, the US military may be about to launch “over the horizon” strikes against an ISIS cell that they believe was involved in the suicide bombing attack outside Kabul airport in August, which killed 13 US soldiers. According to the report, “The cell members could be among the first insurgents struck by armed MQ-9 Reaper drones flying missions over Afghanistan from a base in the Persian Gulf,”
Is the US air war against Afghanistan about to be restarted?