The stone compounds in which many Afghans live are a whirl of skinny arms and legs. Children run between the clustered homes of their aunts, their uncles, their parents. Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations in the world – more than 40 percent of people are under 15.
But childhood in Afghanistan is punctuated by war. With alarming frequency, that war is arriving at their homes. The consequences are often terrible.
When air strikes hit family compounds it is children, overwhelmingly, who die. Attacks on targets that appear to be homes are heavily restricted under international law; even if, for example, military officials know that insurgent fighters have used houses for cover to fire upon troops, officers should weigh up the risk to civilians before striking.
There are fears this is not being done in Afghanistan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism – working with Al Jazeera and Bellingcat – has been tracking air strikes and trying to find the stories behind the statistics.
In a sample of ten air strikes carried out by the US military and their Afghan allies on family compounds in the past two years, 115 people were killed, more than 70 of them children. The strikes share similar features, and similar outcomes; a pattern that repeats up and down the country.
In January of 2019, a strike in Helmand killed ten children. Two months later and hundreds of miles away in Nangarhar, ten young cousins lost their lives. The pattern continues: in July of that year, a farmer in Baghlan lost his wife and six children.
These are just a handful of the thousands of strikes that have been recorded – the ones the Bureau has been able to investigate.
The number of children killed has led experts to question the legality of these strikes. But sustained official silences make it hard to find out why many of the bombings were carried out. Basic information is rarely forthcoming from either the Afghan or US armed forces. Questions plague the survivors: who killed their loved ones? And can anyone ever answer why?
In February this year, representatives from the Taliban and the US signed an agreement in Doha to end their war. The deal paved the way for a withdrawal of US troops after nearly two decades of fighting.
But that agreement is fragile and the idea of “peace” seems an endlessly distant prospect. As the details were being hashed out, strikes and raids carried out by US and Afghan forces were killing more than twice as many children as the Taliban.
In efforts to get the Taliban to negotiate, strikes rained down in record numbers, meaning that with grim inevitability the number of civilians killed and injured hit new highs.
Bismillah Khan understands the toll of those strikes.
His extended family lived in a shared compound, made up of three homes. But in the early hours of September 1 last year the compound was hit by several strikes, reducing every building to rubble.
Bismillah was there. He survived the first bomb, which hit his uncle’s home. “I was sleeping under duvets in my uncle’s house. I realised that suddenly piles of stones, boxes and things fell over me.”
When Bismillah dragged himself out of the room, he met a scene of mayhem. “I could hear the women crying and screaming,” he said. “We were shouting in every direction, calling everyone’s name.”
Like dominos, each house in the compound fell around him. “The houses were hit one after another,” Bismillah said. “We were trying to take the ones alive from my uncle’s to the street then the second bomb hit.”
The third strike took out the last standing building in the compound, he said. “There we heard my cousin from under the rubble, and while helping him to get out, the fourth bomb hit.”
By daybreak, twelve members of the family had lost their lives, including seven children and Rahima, 19. She had married Zabihullah, one of Bismillah’s cousins, just seven months earlier; the whole family had celebrated their wedding. Zabihullah, 21, had survived.
There were few answers from the armed forces on what went wrong the night the Khans were hit.
Reports surfaced of a deadly attack on civilians. But an email from the US military said that no American strikes had hit the area in question within 72 hours of the date of the attack. The Afghan military, the only other force in Afghanistan that conducts air strikes, had announced that 47 Taliban fighters had been killed in the area, but did not reply to requests for comment and rejected allegations that civilians had been harmed.
The strike was one of a number of devastating incidents investigated by volunteers working with the Bureau and Bellingcat, an organisation that specialises in online investigations. The group helped to collect evidence being shared on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and matched this with news reports and other sources.
The group was quickly able to establish that the strike had probably taken place (false or misleading reporting by militia groups make confirming this a sad necessity in every case). Within a few hours of online investigation, there were mounds of evidence to contradict the official denials: picture after picture of destruction – dead bodies, a destroyed house, the sorrowful aftermath.
In Afghanistan, Bismillah had been told a new story. He said that Afghan officials told him US forces were responsible for the strikes. But Afghan civilians have no way to directly approach the US armed forces. He had nowhere else to turn.
“No one took responsibility for this, although it was such a horrible incident,” he said.
Fractured by war, the remaining family members struggle in the aftermath. “After the incident my mother is in a different state of mind, she can’t speak.” Bismillah said. His aunt is similarly affected. “She lost young daughters ... it is too much to carry.”
Rahima’s husband is gone too now. In the wake of her death, he decided to leave the country and was last heard from in Turkey. The family say they do not know where he is now.
A fact of life
Civilian casualties are “a fact of life”, James Mattis, then the US defense secretary, said when grilled about rising death rates in 2017. “We do everything humanly possible...to avoid civilian casualties at all costs ... We’re not the perfect guys, but we are the good guys,” he added.
His words carried the implicit recognition that civilian casualties are an unavoidable consequence of war. But the frequency and gravity of those casualties is not predetermined – it depends how much effort goes into avoiding them. In the Afghan war, priorities have changed; for the better, and then for the worse.
It took until 2008 for civilian casualties to be taken seriously by the military in Afghanistan, said Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon senior intelligence analyst who became head of civilian protection in Afghanistan for the United Nations. That year civilian deaths in the conflict had risen to a record high.
One particular incident turned the tide. On 22 August 2008, US forces all but wiped out an entire village. The public denials were even more publicly refuted, with The New York Times visiting the village and printing an image of the horror on its front page. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Garlasco said. “It completely changed the way Nato dealt with civilian casualties.”
In the aftermath, steps were taken to limit civilian casualties. One was a directive put in place in 2009 that limited the use of force – such as air strikes – in residential and populated areas.
It served as recognition that strikes near and on homes, like the one that hit the Khan family, had a direct and predictable effect on civilian deaths. It had a massive impact – a UN report covering the year after the directive was passed noted a “substantial decrease” in civilian casualties.
The changes in approach meant that even as the number of troops and operations in Afghanistan grew, the number of innocent people dying went down. “It wasn’t perfect,” Garlasco said. “But it’s the closest to a gold standard I’ve seen from a military in my career”.
But at the end of 2014, the Nato-led military mission in Afghanistan came to an end. It was replaced by one that focussed mostly on training, advising and assisting the Afghan military, while the US continued its separate counter-terrorism mission. The team of a dozen analysts working on civilian casualties shrunk down.
“The real kicker is that as Nato leaves, things shift to the Afghan forces,” Garlasco said. “The Afghan air force can now carry out strikes, but they don’t have the capability to protect civilians. And not only do they not have it, they don't want it.” By 2017, 49 per cent of civilian casualties from air strikes were caused by the Afghan military.
A relaxed attitude to harm
The pace of the air war has only increased.
In 2015, the first year after all foreign forces bar the US stopped conducting operations in Afghanistan, there were about 500 strikes. By 2019, that number was fourteen times higher, at more than 7,000.
In 2016, the US had adopted a more relaxed attitude to civilian harm. The authority to carry out risky strikes was devolved to lower-ranking officials without the previous rigid sign-off process. Even strikes that would be more likely to endanger innocent lives did not have to go through the same checks.
The air war intensified after President Trump came into office in 2017. He vowed to “lift restrictions and expand authorities”, warning: “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
Then, in October 2017, the rules of engagement were changed. The “proximity requirement” had mandated that strikes could only be used where troops had come into contact with enemy forces. With it removed, the US military could use strikes more freely, shifting the focus of the air war from the defensive to the offensive. At the same time, more Afghan units were given the power to call in air support.
“One of the most dangerous things for civilians is when the commander wants the war to be over quickly,” a former British officer told the Bureau. “The results are always the same: short-lived military conquests, grotesque numbers of civilian casualties, followed by long-term bloodshed.”
Garlasco compared the US’s recent conduct to 2010, when troop numbers and operations rose but civilian casualties fell. “It goes to show that just because you have a high operation tempo, you don’t necessarily have to kill a large number of civilians,” he said. “This depends on leadership.”
By the end of 2018, the number of civilians killed by air strikes had risen by more than 80 percent, reaching a figure higher than the totals for 2014, 2015 and 2016 combined.
The next year strikes increased further as part of efforts to bomb the Taliban to the negotiating table. A deal was born out of that violence – US troops are preparing to withdraw after two decades of war.
But it came at a great cost; last year, the UN found that more than 1,000 civilians had been killed or injured in strikes, the highest number of casualties they had ever recorded.
The village doctor
In Nangarhar, in the east of Afghanistan, there is another Khan family still counting the cost of a strike. They are not related to Bismillah, but the story the survivors tell is the same.
Sherif Khan lost a brother, a sister-in law and ten nieces and nephews when twelve members of his family were wiped out in strikes on March 9 2019. One of his brothers, a serving soldier in the Afghan army, lost five of his children in the strike that hit his house. Two months later, Sherif said, he was killed on active duty.
The brother killed in the strike, Nazargul, was the village’s doctor. Sherif’s two daughters worked at his clinic as midwives. “He was so kind to the people,” Sherif told a crew from Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines, who collaborated with the Bureau on this investigation. “Two or three o'clock in the night, he would come out from his house to treat children or women, treating them in the cold, rainy, and hot weather.”
Sherif is now guardian to the doctor’s three surviving children. Waheeda, the oldest, managed to save two of her younger sisters that night. But life after so much loss is difficult to comprehend, especially at just 14 years old. “I lost my home and my good life ... My father died. My mother died. I have no one now,” she said.
Despite the testimony of Sherif and Waheeda, the strike has not been confirmed by the US military. It also has not been denied. Instead, it has been designated “possible”, one of the confusing terms used to classify civilian casualty allegations, and one that leaves survivors with no clear answers.
But even this result is in some ways a victory, even if a hollow one. Last year, the US military confirmed only a fifth of the civilian deaths attributed to them by the United Nations mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Most of the allegations were deemed “not credible” or “disproved”. But despite what the term suggests, “not credible” usually means that the military simply does not have enough information to carry out a full investigation.
The US says its figures differ because it has access to additional intelligence, such as drone footage, which shows that “what appeared to be US military-caused civilian casualties … actually had other causes”.
In a press conference in 2017, the commander of operations in Afghanistan said: “The Afghans are building better accountability of every place and time that they drop a munition and, of course, we have almost 100 percent accountability on the US side every time we deliver an aerial munition.” He added: “This would be one of the reasons why we would disagree on the numbers.”
It is hard to verify this claim because the details of military investigations are only very rarely made public. What little is public sheds doubt on it.
One of the more common rebuttals to civilian casualty allegations is that the US military carried out no strikes in the area at the time in question. But while this response sounds robust, it is not always reliable.
One example can be found in the case of Masih Ur-Rahman Mubarez, who lost his wife, seven children, and four young nieces in 2018. The US military responded as above, denying any strikes in the area. An eight-month investigation by the Bureau and The New York Times uncovered evidence proving their involvement in the killings – in the form of a weapon fragment – eventually leading to an admission from the US.
This is not an isolated event. On multiple occasions military monthly releases of data showing no strikes in a province were later contradicted by the force itself.
In one of the cases in the set of strikes investigated with Bellingcat, the Bureau was given an official response that the strike had been disproved. Further investigation soon uncovered evidence, further supported by a UN report, that innocent people had been killed.
In another case, even an official Afghan government investigation and UN reports were not enough to convince the US military the strike they had carried out had not killed legitimate military targets, but fourteen women and children sheltering in a house.
The US forces eventually reversed their position, but only after the UN lobbied directly and the Afghan military stepped in to pay the survivors a condolence payment.
Like looking through a straw: how the US investigates
“The US has not conducted on-the-ground investigations for many years, so they rely on visual and satellite imagery which … is simply not 100 percent reliable,” Patricia Gossman, senior researcher on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, told the Bureau. “Such imagery cannot detect who is inside a building.”
Senior military officials have spoken of how limited the imagery can be – with drone footage compared to looking through a “soda straw”, often leaving out more information than it provides.
It was much easier to investigate allegations, the officials said, when the US still had a large number of troops on the ground. Then they could easily dispatch a patrol to talk to those affected.
But there is still more the Pentagon could do now that the US has fewer than 12,000 personnel in Afghanistan. Gossman has spent years investigating the military’s investigations into air strikes. She found they very rarely interviewed witnesses and never conducted site visits.
Not interviewing witnesses is a “critical flaw” in the process, she said. The US military also relies on information from Afghan forces, which Gossman said cannot always be trusted.
“The Afghan authorities merely ask the original force – army, police, or air force – to file a report. This means asking them to investigate themselves,” she said. “In one recent case of an air strike, the security officials who were dispatched from Kabul to investigate merely asked their colleagues in the same force what had happened and that was the extent of the investigation. They did not interview witnesses and survivors.”
The on-the-ground realities reflect this. When the Bureau and The New York Times shared findings from our investigation into the strike on Masih’s house, the US military concluded it was “possible although unlikely” that civilians died in the strike – reversing its initial position. But during that entire year-long process, no official spoke with Masih and the results of the US’s investigation were not communicated to him.
Masih was not alone in this. Speaking to an Al Jazeera film crew, Sherif Khan said that no one from the US had made contact with his family and an Afghan promise to investigate had not been followed up.
In these cases, families have been left in the dark. At the same time, it is up to them to prove the innocence of their dead relatives – and themselves.
For a moment, imagine the unthinkable: you find your home destroyed and the bodies of your children in the rubble. Your faith requires you bury them as soon as possible.
But to prove their deaths and get compensation from an Afghan government fund, you have to collect up their bodies, sometimes in pieces, and take them to the nearest hospital. When reports of the strike reach the news, officials claim that only Taliban fighters were killed.
Ismael Khan lost his wife and six children in a strike. Rather than take the mangled bodies of his family to the nearest hospital, he chose to bury them quickly, in accordance with Islam. But as a result, he said he has struggled to get the compensation he believes he is owed from a specific government fund for Afghanistan’s war dead.
The local hospital director confirmed that bodies had to be brought there for survivors to qualify for the compensation. He said the policy was put in place to limit potential false claims. “We know it caused lots of problems to people ... but this is how the system is designed.”
While he has been given a small amount of money from elsewhere, Ismael is desperate for further official recognition that his children were victims of the near interminable conflict that has ravaged Afghanistan for decades.
Change is hopefully coming, said Sahr Muhammedally, who advises militaries and governments on civilian harm mitigation as part of her work for the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC).
The Pentagon is developing its first department-wide policy with regard to civilian casualties, with the aim of applying the same standards across all of America’s wars.
In Afghanistan, Nato has made some efforts to reduce harm, noting that civilian casualties were “the single greatest threat” to the mission. The US has streamlined their investigations process to deal with the rising number of allegations.
Muhammedally believes there is real political will in the Afghan government to reduce harm, pointing to new policies and the creation of a casualty counting body. But she warned: “Translating that will into practice takes time and mentoring. The US is withdrawing, yet Afghan forces face enormous challenges. It’s important not to abandon progress.”
The Pentagon policy is expected by the end of the year, but how long it takes for changes to be felt on the ground remains to be seen.
In the meantime, transparency in Afghanistan is decreasing. Questions on the status of internal investigations are given one word answers; requests for more information are pushed into a queue of hundreds. Last month, the US military announced it would no longer say how many bombs it drops in Afghanistan, ending ten years of public records. It claimed the data could adversely impact the Taliban peace talks.
The US’s behaviour in Afghanistan is not mirrored in its other conflicts. In Iraq and Syria the US military responds to a much higher number of allegations on a monthly basis, and engages with third parties openly. Last month, the US commander for Somalia announced a quarterly civilian casualty report, saying: “Where we come up short, we will admit it openly.”
Experts told the Bureau that the stories uncovered by our investigation, as well as the sheer number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, raised questions about the legality of US and Afghan military operations.
Daragh Murray, a senior law lecturer at the University of Essex, said the cases “raise serious concerns around compliance with the law of armed conflict”. He highlighted the principle of proportionality, which put simply, means that while it is legitimate to attack a Taliban fighter, this attack must not cause disproportionate harm to civilians or civilian property.
He added: “As the targeted buildings were ostensibly civilian in nature, and likely to be inhabited by relatively large numbers of civilians, questions must be asked as to why the decision was taken to call in air strikes, rather than to attack using less destructive means.”
Patricia Gossman agrees. “A situation where you have 100 civilians killed in 10 air strikes, with 70 percent of the dead being children, raises serious concerns that these strikes may have been disproportionate.”
But with such limited transparency, both agree it can be difficult to work out what is proportionate. The “why” of most strikes remains mysterious, with any investigations largely kept secret from the wider public in both the US and Afghanistan.
Neither the US nor Afghan forces responded to any of the specific allegations of civilian harm put to them by the Bureau.
Some strikes are accompanied by reports of Taliban fighters forcing their way into homes and then firing on troops, often in the hope that the civilians will act as “human shields”, protecting them from retaliation.
But the actions of the Taliban do not negate the responsibility of US and Afghan troops to protect civilian life. Even in these strikes, flattening an entire home would be a questionable response according to the experts. This is especially true for strikes at night – when the majority of those investigated by the Bureau took place – because families are more likely to be at home and in bed.
Many of the families in this story are pinning their hopes on an international trial to get answers. In March, the International Criminal Court ruled that an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by the US and other warring parties in Afghanistan could proceed, overturning an earlier rejection.
“We are ready for any trial, either the international court or internal Islamic court. We only have that demand. We have no other requests from Americans. Anyone who has done this cruelty to us should be convicted,” said Sherif Khan.
Masih is equally determined to see justice done in court. “I am pinning my hopes on the ICC's hearings after being denied justice by the Americans and Afghan government officials,” Masih told an Al Jazeera reporter.
He told the Bureau: “From the first day, when people were coming to me paying their condolences, I was telling them that I will ask for justice.”
But it is unclear whether those hopes will ever be realised. The ICC faces many challenges, including deliberate non-cooperation from the main parties of the conflict. Last year, the US revoked the visa of the court’s main prosecutor to hamper the Afghanistan investigation.
There are doubts that the ICC can serve justice for the families the Bureau has spoken to – for Bismillah, Sherif, Masih, Ismael, and for the dead. But regardless, Muhammedally says there needs to be a way forward.
“There are sad stories in every family, those who live in Taliban areas and have been affected by air strikes, the families of Afghan security forces who have to bury their soldiers … every Afghan has suffered,” she said.
“There is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. The government and the Taliban need to come to the negotiating table and ask the question: can we continue to suffer?”
Header image: Children recuperating after a strike on their home. Credit: Andrew Quilty. The full story of that strike can be read here.
Our Shadow Wars project was funded by the Open Society Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. None of our funders have any influence over the Bureau’s editorial decisions or output.