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America used airstrikes to wage war with minimal risk to its troops

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story demonstrates that the very latest news is often misleading. It's only later, after careful examination, that you know what really happened. In the desperate days last August, during a U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked the Kabul airport. That attack killed at least 182 people, including 13 American service members.

Three days later, the United States military fired a drone missile at a vehicle in Kabul. And the U.S. said it had disrupted another possible attack. Witnesses on the ground soon disputed that. And now drone video shows what really happened. The New York Times obtained the video. Azmat Khan of The New York Times is one of the reporters who reconstructed what you see on that video, a civilian in a Toyota Corolla moving around Kabul.

AZMAT KHAN: He is doing his job. He's picking up his boss' laptop. He's bringing it to where he's supposed to bring it. He's bringing water home to his family. And he's pulling into his home, where his children and nieces and nephews are running to greet him - where the family told me and many other journalists that one of these little boys wants to help drive the car and gets into it with him. And they rush, they crowd him as he's coming back. And then they're all engulfed in flames.

INSKEEP: Azmat Khan has covered airstrikes that killed civilians in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq and Syria. She explained just how this happened.

KHAN: When the Air Force inspector general talked about what went wrong here, he identified three major things. He talked about execution errors, confirmation bias and communication breakdowns. And this is not, you know, one mistake. And so you can see the failure to detect civilians in that courtyard. You can see their failure to reevaluate the target based on the fact that this vehicle had entered a residential street, that there were figures inside that courtyard.

But you also have what appears to be breakdowns in the chat communications between different personnel who are watching this. You also have the original error - right? - where this target was misidentified. A Toyota Corolla is extremely common. And there's confirmation bias that contributes to that misidentification - right? - where they see a laptop bag and don't see a laptop bag, they see a threat. And so the errors that we're talking about are things I've seen over and over.

INSKEEP: Granting that there have been thousands of bombs dropped in various ways and missiles fired in Afghanistan across 20 years of war - we don't have a comprehensive database of them all. You've looked at a lot of them. Have you seen enough of the war in Afghanistan to believe that this kind of incident was common across 20 years of war?

KHAN: Yes, and many reporters have as well. So you know, the first 13, 14 years of this war, there were many reporters on the ground documenting mass casualty incidents, incidents in which wedding parties were bombed, incidents in which night raids and airstrikes killed large numbers of civilians and took a toll in turning the local population and eventually leading to the resurgence of the Taliban. We know that to be the case. But in more recent years, when we don't have ground presence, we don't have as many troops there on the ground where they're investigating these, we know even less about what goes wrong and why.

INSKEEP: Needless to say, killing innocent people is wrong in itself. But it also has a political effect if it's in a war. It turns people against you. It obviously doesn't hurt the enemy, necessarily. Would you go so far as to say that killing the wrong people again and again and again may well have been one of the major reasons the United States and its allies failed in 20 years of war?

KHAN: In Afghanistan, yes. Absolutely. When you go to Kandahar, when you go to Helmand, when you go to Nangarhar, you'll meet people who were looking forward to the fall of the Taliban, people who were excited about a new future, who with time - through these night raids, through family members getting picked up, sent to Bagram, sent to Guantanamo - through the killings of local elders that sometimes could be traced back to competition for contracts provided by the U.S. military...

INSKEEP: Oh. And so somebody gave a tip.

KHAN: Exactly. And said - so there was bad intelligence coming from some of these people who were economically motivated, right? Civilian casualties played a major role, especially in the areas where most of this war was fought, places that became Taliban strongholds. You know, I just spent time in a village that I never had access to before. It was - honestly, it was too dangerous to visit before, not just because of the threat of kidnapping, but because airstrikes were raining down so heavily within it.

And when I arrived, what I heard time and again were stories of people who were terrified of corrupt Afghan leaders, who would flee these night raids in which they would be arrested and then charged bribes for their release. And oftentimes, when people were fleeing during those night raids, running for the desert, that mere act was seen as evidence of their guilt, they said. And they were targeted in airstrikes. None of these people had ever registered these civilian deaths with the government. They don't show up in U.N. numbers. They don't have death certificates. I verified many of these deaths through tombstones, going to graveyards that are just littered across the desert. We did not know the full extent of civilian loss. You rarely saw firsthand evidence of this. That really calls into question the numbers we had about civilian casualties in this war and the effect they were having on the ground. Even though we knew it played a role for the first 13, 14 years, I still don't think we knew the full extent.

INSKEEP: Azmat Khan of The New York Times. Thank you so much.

KHAN: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF CKTRL'S "MAZES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.