Afghanistan: The deadly legacy of air strikes

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: BBC World Service

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 21/10/2021

Credit: Sayed Abudullah Nizami, journalist; Leoni Robertson, data journalist, Maryam Nikan, designer, Eleanor Keane, developer, Sally Morales, project manager, Adam Allen, tester, Johannes Dell, editor


Sayed Abdullah Nizami, BBC Pashto, Multimedia journalist. Former Chief Reporter for BBC Pashto TV; now based in London. Formerly with Al-Jazeera.

Leoni Robertson, data journalist with the BBC WS Near East Visual Journalism team, working with BBC Afghan, Persian, Turkish, Aarabic and Central Asia 

Maryam Nikan, designer with the BBC WS Near East Visual Journalism team, working with BBC Afghan, Persian, Turkish, Aarabic and Central Asia 

Eleanor Keane, developer with the BBC WS Near East Visual Journalism team, working with BBC Afghan, Persian, Turkish, Aarabic and Central Asia 

Sally Morales, Project Manager, BBC Visual Journalism

Adam Allen, Tester, BBC Visual Journalism

Johannes Dell, Editor with the BBC WS Near East Visual Journalism team, working with BBC Afghan, Persian, Turkish, Aarabic and Central Asia 

Project description:

Following the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, this project illuminates on one aspect of the war’s legacy: The impact of airstrikes on the civilian population and the use of drones in particular.  We had two case studies: The deadly US strike killing ten people from the same family during the US pull out on August 29. The second, a similar attack in 2013 which again killed an extended family, but left a four year old girl alive; BBC Pashto kept in touch throughout the eight years since, so her story became the ‘entry point’ for the data investigation.   

Impact reached:

Tackling a complex story during the upheaval Afghanistan went through last summer was a challenge. We still hit the 10K mark for most audiences (12,303 page views Persian, 17,210 page views Urdu), but what was really encouraging was the way above average engagement time for this ranging from  , 1:08 to 1:22 on average per reader). 

The story has good evergreen potential, given that the ‘drone wars’ are by no means over, and even in Afghanistan, the continued presence of so-called Islamic State provides the potential justification for strikes, at least in the border areas where they never stopped. 

Techniques/technologies used:

The key to this was to find reliable data to show the impact of the air strikes launched by the US and its allies in Afghanistan.  Choosing from three main available data sets (US Airforce: Air power summaries, Bureau of Investigative journalism: Drone Wars and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s annual reports on civilian casualties) we opted for the UN data as a base line, giving a good compromise of available time series (2009 – 2020) and breakdown of civilian casualties in injuries and deaths, adults and children. (BoIJ shorter time series, US airforce, no detail beyond weapons release). The UN data needed extensive cleaning as figures from older reports were updated later as new information became available, and some data, e.g. the number of child casualties, was hidden in footnotes and appendixes.  An additional weakness of the UNAMA data sets was the lack of breakdown into different aerial platforms, i.e. helicoper, strike aircraft, drone.  We needed a series of expert interviews to come to an estimate that could be used to back uo the limited data that was available. 

What was the hardest part of this project?

There were significant challenges: Editorial: The Taliban takeover of Kabul fell right in the middle of the project timeline, posing a number a number of significant challenges: We had far less access to our first person story, the miracle girl who survived the devastating drone strike 8 years ago. The equally shocking strike on August 29th then provided a new peg, albeit required a restructuring of the story sequence. Data: As described, the cleaning of the data set was challenging as some of the UN’s reporting was ‘hidden’ within report appendixes and some figures changed over time due to a complex methodology reflecting a mix of eyewitness accounts, media reports, ongoing investigations etc… Extensive cleaning and cross checking with other data sources and experts was needed. Design: GIven the entry point to the story, i.e. a single incident, we decided to reveal the data in a ‘scrolly format’, step by step, ‘zooming out from the province where it happened and the time when it happened to a provincial and the n from her province and expanded to the whole Afghanistan and from there the date for the 10 years. This was achievable by building the scroly page to get the reader engage with the story and data. Showing data by moving the dotes on Afghanistan map, is the visual intimation of drone hovering on the lands. We also want to show how drone war works, we tried to simplified the stages and reveal them in 3 steps with flat graphic. One challenge for both graphics was to avoid text on the graphics and only use visuals to tell the information. For the scroly I divided the page into two section, one for the keys to be translated and work separately from the moving map to avoid complication on the map

What can others learn from this project?

The main learning points are:

How to turn a limited data set into a credible story by cross checkign with other data sets and supplementing the findings with expert opinions from additional interviews. 

Integrating a personal story with data and making it relevant to a wider picture.

Working in a way that makes re-versioning into multiple languages easier, by minimising text in graphic and transferring labelling to crolly text.

Project links: