One hundred and fifteen civilians died in just 10 airstrikes in the U.S. war in Afghanistan in the last two years; more than 70 of them were children. That’s the finding of a new investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, or TBIJ, which offers a glimpse into the terrible reality of the conflict in Afghanistan. The strikes that the investigation focused on — conducted by the U.S. military and the U.S.-backed Afghan air force — represent just a handful of the total number of bombings during the period.
TBIJ crowdsourced information on particular strikes, then worked with an Al Jazeera film crew who traveled to Afghanistan to meet some of the survivors, confirming civilian casualties in some instances when the U.S. government had not admitted them. The 10 airstrikes analyzed in their report took place between 2018 and 2019. The fact that over 60 percent of those who died in the bombings were children reflects Afghanistan’s overwhelmingly young population and a culture in which large families tend to live together in big housing compounds.
There is no official explanation for four of the 10 strikes TBIJ investigated. As for the others, according to details provided by the U.S. military or contained in United Nations reports, the U.S. military invoked self-defense. But even in cases where fighting was occurring nearby, victims say the strikes that hit their homes and killed their families were unjustified. Compounding their pain, they have never received any accountability or even an explanation for their loss.
Experts in the law of war told TBIJ that the strikes “raise serious concerns around compliance with the law of armed conflict,” in the words of Daragh Murray, a senior law lecturer at the University of Essex. Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, said that the high number of civilian casualties, and of children killed, meant that “these strikes may have been disproportionate.”
In one incident documented by TBIJ, airstrikes hit a compound in Faryab province where an Afghan man named Bismillah Khan and his extended family lived. In the early hours of September 1, 2019, a series of explosions hit their home, collapsing the buildings on top of Khan and his family while they slept. The strikes killed 12 people, including seven children and the newly married wife of one of Khan’s cousins.
“Before the bombing we had a good life. We are farmers. We had cows and donkeys and they were also buried under the rubble.”
Volunteers working for TBIJ and the open-source investigation outlet Bellingcat compiled social media posts and local news reports corroborating the strike. Despite evidence showing that civilians were harmed, including images of bodies and destroyed homes, neither the U.S. military nor the U.S.-backed Afghan air force took responsibility for the strike. Promises to investigate have gone unfulfilled, and the victims and local community have been forced to live without accountability for their loss. Khan and many of his neighbors have left the village, unable to bear living at the site of a massacre.
“Before the bombing we had a good life. We are farmers. We had cows and donkeys and they were also buried under the rubble,” Khan told investigators. “I had photos of my family on my mobile, but every time I looked at them I couldn’t bear it.”
The U.S. military has dropped tens of thousands of bombs on Afghanistan since it began occupying the country in 2001. This violence has escalated rather than decreased even with the official “end” of the combat mission there in 2014, with the number of munitions dropped on the country hitting an annual record of 7,423 last year.
While the Pentagon states that it does everything in its power to avoid killing and wounding innocent people, it affords scant resources to investigate the actual impact of its strikes. It does not actually track down the victims of airstrikes, relying on its own intelligence and refusing to visit the sites of its strikes or interview eyewitnesses. The grueling work of investigating who these strikes are actually killing and maiming has thus been left to nongovernmental organizations and journalists. The reality they uncover has usually been much uglier than official U.S. government accounts suggest.
There’s also a pattern to those accounts: The U.S. military tends to reflexively deny a strike or claim that solely militants were killed; they only back down, in some cases, after independent investigators come forward with contravening evidence. In an annual report released earlier this month on civilian deaths across all active U.S. war zones, the military claimed that only 132 people were killed by its operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Such low officials figures have been repeatedly debunked by journalists and NGOs, invariably working with a tiny fraction of the Pentagon’s budget.
Even during the Obama administration, which professed a commitment to transparency, there was little accountability for the deaths of innocent people in U.S. military operations. It was reported in 2012, for instance, that the military labeled any “military-aged male” it killed in strikes as a militant by default. The practice of “signature strikes,” in which people were killed even when their identities weren’t known because their behavior pattern allegedly matched that of a militant, belied Obama officials’ insistence that airstrikes were precise and used only on high-value targets. Outside investigators also accused that administration of drastically undercounting the number of civilians killed.
The U.S. military tends to reflexively deny a strike or claim that solely militants were killed; they only back down, in some cases, after independent investigators come forward with contravening evidence.
But under President Donald Trump, the U.S. government has seemingly done everything it can to encourage an environment of impunity and loosen the rules of engagement. Trump campaigned on a promise to ramp up the brutality of existing wars, pardoning and even celebrating service members accused of war crimes. On this issue it seems like Trump has delivered on his campaign promise — with reports of increased strikes and civilian death tolls in numerous countries where the military is operating or supporting local forces — including in Afghanistan, where casualty numbers in recent years have reached record highs.
After nearly two decades of inconclusive fighting, the United States appears to be preparing to exit Afghanistan. Rather than defeating the Taliban, the U.S. government is putting the final touches on a peace agreement with the group that will allow for a U.S. military withdrawal, but makes few guarantees for peace between the militants and the Afghan central government that was set up during the occupation. Since 2001 the war has killed over 2,300 U.S. service members. No one is sure how many Afghans have died, but even the most conservative estimates put the figure above 100,000 — not counting the many more who have been maimed or driven from their homes by the fighting.
As it prepares to leave Afghanistan, the Trump administration is also waging a rearguard battle to prevent any legal accountability for U.S. actions during the war, including deadly airstrikes and raids that routinely killed civilians far in excess of official numbers. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has threatened the International Criminal Court for authorizing a war crimes investigation focused in part on U.S. military killings of Afghan civilians, with Pompeo naming specific ICC staff members and their family members as potentially subject to retribution if they level accusations of war crimes against U.S. officials.
Such actions show a government deeply hostile to any type of close scrutiny of its actions. The investigation into the strikes in Afghanistan compiled by TBIJ and independent researchers gives a clue why. Contrary to the official narrative and figures, the U.S. war in Afghanistan has had a devastating impact on civilians. While the war might soon fade from memory for Americans, many ordinary Afghans will be dealing with the consequences for the rest of their lives.