The New York Times has won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for a series that compared what the Pentagon reported about civilian casualties from airstrikes to what residents on the ground said.
The Pulitzer board awarded the prize to the staff of The New York Times “for courageous and relentless reporting that exposed the vast civilian toll of U.S.-led airstrikes, challenging official accounts of American military engagements in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.”
Drawing on more than 1,300 Pentagon documents dating back to 2014, the series concluded that “the American air war has been plagued by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and imprecise targeting and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children.” The Times visited nearly 100 airstrike sites to interview survivors.
The Times’ reporting concluded that the number of civilian deaths in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria was “drastically” higher than the official number of 1,417. In many cases, the paper found, biases and blind spots put civilians at risk. Meanwhile, few of the incidents resulted in disciplinary action by U.S. officials.
“Taken together, the 5,400 pages of records point to an institutional acceptance of civilian casualties,” the Times wrote in the series. “In the logic of the military, a strike was justifiable as long as the expected risk to civilians had been properly weighed against the military gain, and it had been approved up the chain of command.”
The lead reporter on the Times’ multi–part series was Azmat Khan, an investigative reporter who is now writing a book on America’s air wars. She is an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and directs the Li Center for Global Journalism.
Other contributors to the series were Lila Hassan, Momen Muhanned, Jeff Parrott, Abbie Cheeseman, Hiba Yazbek, Abdul Hadi Patmal, Ali Uthman, Abdullah Abdelqader Ali, Mahmood Zaki, Zainab Alfakheri, Michael Beswetherick, Tala Safie and Jacky Myint.
Khan won a Polk military reporting prize as well as an Overseas Press Club award for investigative reporting, both in 2022.
Khan’s reporting “shatters the myth that the Pentagon’s widely heralded air campaign, using drones and precision bombs, spared American casualties in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan with few consequences for innocent civilians,” wrote the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which gave Khan legal assistance in her document requests with the military.
The series may have led to high-level changes within the Pentagon. In January 2022, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced improved efforts to prevent civilian deaths and impose greater accountability on U.S. personnel.
“We can and will improve upon efforts to protect civilians,” Austin wrote in a directive to top civilian and military officials. “The protection of innocent civilians in the conduct of our operations remains vital to the ultimate success of our operations, and as a significant strategic and moral imperative.”
Austin’s directive followed efforts in Congress to restrict some Pentagon funding until the military submitted a plan for improving its policies to prevent civilian casualties. A congressionally mandated report by the RAND Corp. found “considerable weaknesses” and loopholes in the military’s current policies.
Austin and his top aides, the Times reported, “declared an intention to overhaul policy rules and cultural norms in the military in a meaningful way. The challenge facing them is whether they can translate their abstract intentions into concrete change in the field.”
Khan, a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, often visited relatives in Pakistan while growing up, she told WBEZ radio. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, a master’s degree from Oxford University, and also attended the American University in Cairo.
Khan did not immediately respond to an inquiry for this article.