May 17, 2022

Azmat Khan honored for look at civilian casualties of US-led coalition airstrikes

Azmat Khan was recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for her work on the New York Times series “The Civilian Casualty Files,” which, according to the Pulitzer committee, “exposed the vast civilian toll of U.S.-led airstrikes, challenging official accounts of American military engagements in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan."

The investigation found that one in five of the coalition strikes identified resulted in a civilian death rate of more than 31 times higher than was acknowledged by the coalition.

ASU News talked to Khan, who is a professor of practice in Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies and a mentor in the Center on the Future of War, about the Pulitzer award and the reporting process from the six-year investigation.

Note: Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: Congratulations on the Pulitzer. So, what’s it like the moment you hear you’ve won a Pulitzer?

Answer: Actually, my editor played a fun trick on me where he told me that a lot of the big newsrooms get a little bit of a head's up, so they can prepare. So my editor texted saying that there was a problem with some translation, and I was really worried, and he was like, “Can you get on this Google hangout?” And I had been putting my niece to bed, so I missed the text, and then he called and he was like, “Listen, we just need to go over this thing real quick.” And she was still in the room with me. And she’s only 2 and a half. So she's just kind of walking around while I'm doing this Google hangout with my editor on the magazine and my editor at the newspaper, and she was like, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” And then they told me about the Pulitzer. I don't know, in that brief moment, I think I was more relieved than I was excited because they were trying to tell me there was a problem with some translation of some work as a joke, and that just panicked me.

Q: How did the investigation get its start, and how long did it go before it was published?

A: For me, this reporting started six years ago. I’ve been working on this endlessly since 2016. The first two years I spent trying to do a ground sample with another ASU professor, Anand Gopal (who was a Pulitzer finalist in 2015 for general nonfiction). We were trying to understand how many airstrikes are actually killing civilians and why. I was able to visit the sites of 103 airstrikes in three cluster areas. We found out that the true rate that we were seeing of coalition airstrikes was 31 times higher than what the military was claiming. And we published this New York Times Magazine cover story called “The Uncounted.” The last four years have been subsequently building upon that.

Q: What initially prompted you to look into these airstrikes and the potential civilian toll?

A: I had just recently finished an investigation of U.S. claims in Afghanistan. America claimed to have built and refurbished the schools, and it was a pretty devastating look — not just at broken promises when it came to the schools — because I think it revealed all of these other failures in the war effort. By 2016, as I’m watching the U.S. air war against ISIS take place, I wanted to investigate. I knew I could do a ground sample. I had experience doing it. And I knew these claims were often inaccurate, and if they’re not corrected in time, you lose the chance to do anything about them. So I was just startled by the statistics that the military was putting out.

I remember one day looking at the front page of the International Herald Tribune (a New York Times publication), and there was this article that said the U.S. air war against ISIS had killed between 20,000 and 25,000 ISIS fighters. And my jaw dropped because I had been tracking these civilian casualty admissions that the military had been making, and they were touting this system of accountability. And I think it was 21 civilians they admitted. And that’s just not physically possible.

Q: You visited more than 150 sites of air strikes in Iraq, talking to witnesses, survivors and family members. Were they willing to talk to you about what they saw? Did you use an interpreter? I’m curious about how you got them to open up.

A: I do work with interpreters. They’re a valuable part of the reporting. I would say that (getting people to talk) really depended on which stage of war I was there for. In the beginning, I think people are very willing to talk. As time goes by and people might have some closure, it gets a little bit harder. … There were some people who didn’t want to talk because it’s too hard to talk about. I tried to be respectful of everyone who said that. Obviously, I would talk to other people who were willing to talk. There was always somebody else. That, and I also didn’t make it just about the night (of an airstrike). I would have these hours-long interviews where I’d ask about their entire lives. I think for many, it depends on the person, but I think that helps (them) trust you and also open up. I was also very clear about what their rights were, that they didn’t have to answer my questions. And if they found anything offensive, tell me, and we can move on.

Q: What are you most proud of in regard to the series?

A: The thing I’m genuinely the most proud of is that I just made all of these documents public — 1,300 files — and they are filled with all kinds of legal rationale that it’s not my job to assess with the respects to the laws of war, but now legal scholars are. I know a number of studies that are taking place. Usually, it takes decades after a war has ended to really delve into what the protocols were. Now, there’s a chance to actually study this in real time. I’m really excited about the scholarship that will come out of that. 

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News