The Morning: The human toll

U.S. airstrikes have not lived up to their billing.

Good morning. We look at the human toll of American airstrike mistakes.

Hassan Aleiwi Muhammad Sultan with a friend near his home in East Mosul, Iraq.Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

The human toll

On the evening of March 5, 2016, 21 members of the extended Zeidan family got together for dinner in the northern Iraqi city of West Mosul. A U.S. airstrike killed all of them.

The following month, a strike in East Mosul killed four civilians and sent shrapnel into the spinal cord of a boy named Hassan Aleiwi Muhammad Sultan, partially paralyzing him.

The next year in Mosul, Kareema Khalid Suleiman and 33 members of her family gathered in what they hoped was a safe place during fighting between the U.S. and ISIS. An airstrike killed everybody in the house but Suleiman, who climbed out from the rubble.

Airstrikes — from drones or piloted planes — have been the central military tactic that the United States has used in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other recent conflicts. And U.S. officials often trumpet their advantages. Airstrikes have allowed the U.S. to kill terrorists and other enemies with minimal civilian casualties and without putting American troops in danger, the officials claim.

These arguments have some truth to them. Airstrikes helped the U.S. defeat ISIS in several places, including the Mosul area. But it has also become clear that American officials have exaggerated the benefits of airstrikes and substantially underplayed their downsides, starting with the horror of civilian casualties.

This weekend, The Times published an investigation — written by Azmat Khan, a contributing writer at The Times Magazine — of the systemic failures with the military's use of airstrikes. The magazine has now published a second article by Azmat, focusing on the human toll of those failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

"If it weren't for her clothes, I wouldn't have even known it was her," Ali Younes Mohammed Sultan told Azmat, describing his daughter, who was one of the 21 members of the Zeidan family killed during their dinner. "She was just pieces of meat. I recognized her only because she was wearing the purple dress that I bought for her a few days before. It's indescribable."

Azmat's work is an astonishing feat of reporting, as her editor, Luke Mitchell, told me. She spent much of the past five years obtaining military documents and traveling through Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to interview witnesses and visit 60 different bomb sites.

The site of a strike in Yabisat, West Mosul, Iraq.Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Wars inevitably involve death, including civilian death, as advocates of air warfare — across the Biden, Trump, Obama and George W. Bush administrations — often point out. These officials argue that the civilian toll from airstrikes is still less than the toll wrought by tanks rumbling through neighborhoods or by airplanes carpet-bombing cities.

Yet Azmat's reporting has exposed serious problems with the American use of airstrikes:

A rush to confirm targets, ignoring evidence that they may involve significant civilian casualties — or may not even be military targets.

Before the attack that killed the Zeidan family, one U.S. official warned that children and their families most likely lived near the target; she was ignored. As Azmat writes, "Confirmation bias ran rampant."

An undercounting of civilian deaths. In some cases, the toll was nearly double that acknowledged by the military. Military documents claim that 27 percent of airstrikes with civilian casualties include children among the toll; The Times's reporting suggests it is 62 percent.

Lack of apologies or compensation after mistakes. One example: The U.S. never contacted the survivors of the attack that partially paralyzed the boy in East Mosul, and his family struggles to afford his wheelchair.

Lack of accountability for mistakes. The military frequently absolves its members of wrongdoing. Last week, the Pentagon said that no troops would be punished for an August drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed 10 civilians, including seven children.

Ultimately, Azmat argues that the U.S. approach to airstrikes is so flawed that it may undermine American security — at mortal cost to others — rather than protect it. She writes:

What I saw after studying them was not a series of tragic errors but a pattern of impunity: of a failure to detect civilians, to investigate on the ground, to identify causes and lessons learned, to discipline anyone or find wrongdoing that would prevent these recurring problems from happening again. It was a system that seemed to function almost by design to not only mask the true toll of American airstrikes but also legitimize their expanded use.

Here are the main takeaways from the first part of The Times investigation, and here is Azmat's magazine story focused on the human cost of airstrikes.


Biden's Agenda
Senator Joe Manchin at the Capitol last week.Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times
  • Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he couldn't support his party's climate and social spending bill, threatening a cornerstone of President Biden's agenda.
  • Manchin reiterated longstanding concerns, including about the bill's climate provisions and the risk of inflation.
  • Experts said that without the bill's climate provisions, global warming would become worse.
  • The White House responded harshly, calling Manchin's stance "a breach of his commitments." But some Democrats hope that a bill tailored to Manchin's demands could pass next year.
The Virus
Other Big Stories
  • Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who had said that a former Communist Party leader had sexually assaulted her, now denies those claims.
  • Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican who resigned from the U.S. Senate for health reasons in 2019, died at 76.

Bret Stephens and Gail Collins look ahead to 2022.

Students and parents desperately need schools to get back to normal, says Michelle Goldberg.

Deeply reported journalism needs your support.

The Times relies on subscribers to help fund our mission. Become a subscriber today.



Daniel Terna for The New York Times

Mouthwatering: The 25 essential dishes to eat in New York City.

Buying influence: How China manipulates Facebook and Twitter.

Pop star: Britney Spears felt trapped. Her business manager benefited.

The Media Equation: The man at the center of the "Let's Go, Brandon!" meme just wants to drive his racecar.

Quiz time: Have you taken the 2021 faces quiz?

Advice from Wirecutter: Avoid unnecessary tech upgrades.

Lives Lived: Eve Babitz was a child of Hollywood who wrote about the pleasures of Los Angeles — and famously appeared in a photo, naked, playing chess with Marcel Duchamp. She died at 78.


Toronto restricted crowd size on Saturday.Chris Young/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

Omicron hits sports

In March 2020, a canceled N.B.A. game — the so-called Rudy Gobert game — marked the moment that the pandemic became a reality for many Americans. Twenty-one months later, the sports world is again the face of an outbreak, this time as Omicron spreads.

N.B.A. officials postponed five games after dozens of players either tested positive or had close contact with someone who had. To help fill their depleted roster, the Brooklyn Nets reinstated Kyrie Irving, who has missed the entire season because he is not vaccinated. He went into Covid protocols before playing a game.

Omicron is affecting other sports, too. The N.F.L. rescheduled three games this weekend to account for outbreaks. The Premier League in England called off most of its games this weekend. And the N.H.L. is postponing 21 games between today and Dec. 23.

For more: In The Times, Kurt Streeter argued that pro sports should take a vacation until at least February.


What to Cook
Christopher Simpson for The New York Times

Have malted cream, hazelnut praline and chocolate? Make this cake.

What to Watch

Get some laughs from comedy specials by Roy Wood Jr., Bo Burnham, Tig Notaro and others.

World Through a Lens
Late Night

The pandemic disrupted "Saturday Night Live," as Paul Rudd hosted without an audience, a musical guest or most of the cast.

Now Time to Play

The pangram from Friday's Spelling Bee was pivoted. Here is today's puzzle — or you can play online.

Here's today's Mini Crossword, and a clue: Sentimental sort (five letters).

If you're in the mood to play more, find all our games here.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. Carlos Tejada, The Times's deputy Asia editor and a fierce advocate for our journalism, died on Friday. We will miss him.

"The Daily" is about a teenager who escaped the Taliban. On the Book Review podcast, Debby Applegate and Matthew Pearl discuss their new books. "Sway" features the Facebook whistle-blower.

Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti, Ashley Wu and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at

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