LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Fifteen years ago, the war in Iraq began with a claim that was proven false.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction. He's determined to make more.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
GEORGE W. BUSH: We will lead a coalition of nations and disarm Saddam Hussein.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
BUSH: In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The survey group has not found evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction stocks prior to the war. Is that correct?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That's correct.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the height of the war, there were almost 170,000 U.S. troops in Iraq trying to quell an insurgency and stabilize a country in the grips of a vicious civil conflict. And the U.S. is still involved in Iraq. Azmat Khan is a future of war fellow at the New America Foundation and a New York Times Magazine contributing writer. She joins us from New York to talk about Iraq, past and present. Welcome to the program.
AZMAT KHAN: Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I spent years living in Iraq and covering it. I was there under Saddam and then during the U.S. occupation and beyond. And I'd like to play a little bit of George W. Bush talking to my colleague David Greene last year. And he is talking about how he views Iraq as being better off because of the war, and so is America.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
BUSH: A lot of people looked at Japan and said, no way Japan would ever be an ally. But yeah. I do think democracies can and must evolve in the Middle East.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's begin with you taking us to Iraq today. Are Iraqis better off?
KHAN: That is such a tough question. And you really just have to go back to this invasion and look at the chaos that it spawned. And amid that social collapse, zealots seized the pulpit. It was the breeding ground for what became ISIS. You know, it goes beyond just loss of life. It's about infrastructure. The healthcare system is decimated. You're looking at millions of Iraqi schoolchildren who had to stay out of school for years because of this war.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You touched on it there that the country fractured during the war in so many ways. But certainly, sectarianism was one of the big ways. There was Sunni, Shiite, Kurds, Christians. Is this even a country that still holds together?
KHAN: When the Americans arrived in Iraq, they often strategically worked with particular tribal groups on the ground - ones that had been disenfranchised under Saddam - and then found wealth and contracts and jobs under the Americans. And they played some of these groups against one another in an effort to sort of quell the insurgency that was spawned by this invasion. And what wound up happening is that you had these rivalries and rifts that have now become sectarian in nature, that perhaps weren't so sectarian to begin with but really became so with time.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The U.S. is still involved in Iraq, fighting ISIS, even though Iraq declared victory over ISIS late last year. But take us back. ISIS actually evolved out of a U.S. detention center. Was it a monster of our own making?
KHAN: In many ways, it was. Of course, there's a history that goes back to the Saddam regime and the religious awakening he tried to foster, which did bring some fundamentalists out in Iraq. But those fundamentalists did not get the kind of power that they did once the U.S. invaded and that al-Qaida and Iraq started to take shape. And yes, many of the leaders of ISIS today were individuals who were detained in U.S. facilities. But if you do a study - if you look at key ISIS leaders, you'll find that many of that generation of them were detained in facilities, not just by the United States but by Iraqi police forces who are empowered by U.S. forces. And so so much of that kind of discontent, so much of the political problems that led to the rise of ISIS are rooted in the kind of strategic alliances that were kept with some tribal factions and not others, the contracts that were given to some and not others.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: By the Americans.
KHAN: By the Americans - exactly.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk a little bit about the war that the United States has helped wage more recently. And that was against ISIS. Last November in The New York Times magazine, you wrote about your investigation into so-called precision bombing by coalition forces on ISIS targets in Iraq. And we should mention here that that article just won an Overseas Press Club award. So congratulations.
KHAN: Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In your reporting, you found that precision might not be the right word to characterize these attacks.
KHAN: Right. You know, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes. And we found that 1 in 5 of the coalition airstrikes were resulting in a civilian death and that, in half of these cases of civilian death, poor or outdated intelligence was the likely cause of those civilian casualties. And what that means is you can be precise, right? You can hit the exact correct target that you want to hit exactly the way you want to hit it without destroying anything else nearby. But if your target is wrong, and your intelligence is wrong, then that precision doesn't really matter.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what about the numbers? Do we know how many people were killed in those coalition strikes?
KHAN: So there are estimates from different organizations. I can tell you what we found on the ground, which was that 1 in 5 was resulting in a civilian death, which was 31 times higher than the rates that the government has been giving out. So there's no clear number. But one clear takeaway is that the numbers are much, much higher than the U.S. government has acknowledged.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It seems that the United States has declared mission accomplished so many times before. Can the United States ever walk away?
KHAN: It seems unlikely. You know, this is a country that is of incredible strategic interest. It's positioned in a place that is fundamentally important to U.S. interests in the region. Even if ISIS is completely, 100 percent defeated on the battlefield, the problems that led to its rise still exist in many ways today. And so the possibility of this happening again still exists. And the idea that the United States can completely walk away from this is hard for many to grapple with. It's unclear that the government of Iraq would function on its own without the kind of support that it's getting from the United States.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Azmat Khan of the New America think tank talking to us about Iraq 15 years after the start of the war - thank you so much for joining us.
KHAN: Thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.