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Victims of A Drone Strike, Momentarily Visible
All eyes were on Kabul just in time to catch a glimpse of people the U.S. killed with its robot airframes. Will we look away now that U.S. troops have left Afghanistan?
Edited by Sam Thielman
ON SUNDAY MORNING, U.S. East Coast time, the Pentagon announced that it had executed a strike on a “vehicle in Kabul” it suspected was being used by the so-called Islamic State-Khorasan to attack the airport. A statement forwarded from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) to reporters said the Pentagon had “no indications” of any civilian deaths.
“We are confident we successfully hit the target,” CENTCOM spokesperson Bill Urban wrote. “Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.”
Immediate official certainty ought always to prompt skepticism. Kabul is densely populated, in part because the war, fought primarily in provincial areas, displaced so many people who moved into the city; now it is also packed with those trying to escape Taliban Afghanistan. But Matthieu Aikins, a careful and experienced reporter, spoke to the family of those killed, as did other reporters. Atkins and his peers did not find an IS-K target.
After work, an engineer named Zemari Ahmadi drove his white Toyota Corolla – this detail may be important later – into his family’s walled courtyard in Kabul’s Khwaja Burgha neighborhood. His children, nieces and nephews came over to the car to welcome him home. Ahmadi works for Nutrition and Education International; the company’s website is temporarily disabled, but Aikins says the group is a California-based charity. Ahmadi sounds like a good person. Nutrition and Educational International told Aikins and his colleagues that Ahmadi recently prepared and distributed meals to people in Kabul’s refugee camps.
According to Aikins’ interviews with Ahmadi, the drone strike hit the Corolla with the children in and around it. Seven of the children were among the ten people killed. Similar accounts, such as this one in the Los Angeles Times, as well as a Pentagon briefing on Monday morning, suggest that this was the only drone strike in Kabul on Sunday.
The Pentagon and CENTCOM rely substantially on a claim of “significant secondary explosions” after the drone strike to substantiate that the car it destroyed was carrying explosives. But accounts from the ground of such a thing are thin. Ahmadi’s family told the Los Angeles Times something that seems to contradict it outright: “In Khwaja Burgha, members of Ahmadi’s family said there had been only one explosion and that the resulting fireball had partially burned a crimson Toyota SUV that was also in the driveway.” Now, the Pentagon says it will investigate the strike to determine whether or not it killed ten people by mistake. The wait, if historical patterns hold, will be long.
DURING THE PENTAGON’S PRESS CONFERENCE on Monday morning, Alex Horton of the Washington Post – a good reporter, a good guy and a combat veteran of Iraq – told Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby and Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor of the Joint Staff that a former Explosive Ordnance Disposal tech who examined photographs of the scene for him found none of the typical indications of a secondary explosion. Kirby had moments earlier said he was certain such a secondary explosion took place. Alex asked if it was possible such an explosion might have resulted from someone’s gas tank catching fire. Taylor insisted there was indeed a secondary explosion, and the military continued to assess that “what was there was going to be used in a high-profile attack.”
Another reporter who was masked and whose name I didn’t catch asked whether it was necessary to launch a drone strike in a dense residential area, where civilian casualties – contrary to the first Defense Department statement on Sunday – are to be expected. Kirby pointed to the “dynamic” nature of the security threat around the airport. “We believed this to be an imminent threat” and took the “best opportunity” to strike it with the Reaper drone’s missile, he said. At a different point, Kirby said that “when we know we have caused innocent life to be lost, we’re transparent about it.”
While Taylor said the military was going to investigate whether it killed Ahmadi and his children, nieces and nephews, the general nevertheless began his briefing by saying the military had “thwarted [an IS-K] attack.” The vehicle struck was “known” to be an IS-K vehicle, he said, and involved in an “imminent” attack. He reiterated those talking points throughout the press conference.
Obviously both things cannot be true. If they killed Ahmadi and the children, they did not thwart an attack. If they blew up his Toyota Corolla, they did not blow up a “known” IS-K vehicle. The Pentagon has not attempted to assert that a man who worked for a California charity was somehow ISIS, although they are letting the implication hang in the air. His family made explicit to the LA Times that he was no terrorist.
It matters what the military immediately presents as fact and what it presents as possibility. Nancy Youssef, a friend of mine and an excellent reporter with the Wall Street Journal, pointed to how quickly CENTCOM’s first statement expressed certainty that the U.S. had killed no innocents. Kirby, with whom I have worked over the years and who I believe has integrity – I’ve sure worked with a lot of Pentagon press people who don’t – replied that the statement had an “at the time” caveat from the start. Nancy’s question reflected what was the Pentagon’s main message and what was its fine print.
I AM NOT IN ANY POSITION to adjudicate the truth of the strike from almost 7,000 miles away. And since the military appears to have completed its retrograde and evacuation operations as we were editing this piece, neither will the U.S. military. Even when American forces are on the ground, the results of such investigations are suspect.
On Aug. 7, a Saturday, CENTCOM emailed reporters a bundle of its most recent civilian casualty assessments from Iraq and Syria. The report covering May 2021, the most recent that featured a new assessment, found that “regrettably,” the U.S. killed seven civilians and wounded two others in a strike near the al-Tanak oil fields in Syria on Aug. 7, 2016. CENTCOM dismissed four other accounts of civilian deaths, ranging from October 2018 to May 2021, as “not credible,” since it claims there were no coalition military actions at the place and date alleged. The subsequent report, covering June 2021, related that 106 reports of civilian casualties remain unresolved. The oldest is from Aug. 24, 2015. Several pages earlier, at the top of the report, the U.S. military command in Baghdad claims that “at least 1,417 civilians have been unintentionally killed” by the U.S. since the war began in August 2014. That figure strains credibility given that the military claims to have conducted “34,987 strikes between August 2014 and the end of June 2021” in Iraq and Syria.
When Kirby says that the U.S. military is “transparent” about the civilian deaths it creates, this is, in practice, what that transparency looks like.
I haven’t been to Afghanistan in 11 years. Among my memories is the prevalence of Toyota Corollas on the roads, particularly white ones. Numerous soldiers and airmen I talked to pointed it out as well. Some expressed what-can-you-do frustration about tactical intelligence they’d received telling them to watch out for a white Corolla that might be a car bomb. Super helpful.
I’ve also spent time interviewing survivors of drone strikes and the relatives of those who didn’t survive. (You can read some of this in the smash critical success REIGN OF TERROR, available now through booksellers.) Consistent in their accounts is pain and anger at the indifference the United States shows them as a final insult. It refuses to publicly acknowledge that it harmed them, sometimes throwing blood money at them as a substitute.
A decade ago, I got caches of photographs from the aftermath of drone strikes in tribal Pakistan. Even though the U.S. markets the drone as a flying guillotine that kills only the right people, the photos showed that launching drone strikes in densely populated areas – and none of these places were remotely as dense as Kabul – kills people nearby. Mere masonry will not withstand a Hellfire missile. If there’s a propane or kerosene tank close to a dwelling near a strike, all the worse.
But Kabul currently has something that most areas targeted in drone strikes do not: the presence and attention of motivated reporters. Mostly, the Afghanistan war has been fought in the countryside, not the capitol, which is why refugees flow to Kabul. Finally, reporters are in Kabul to document human devastation, and on Sunday the devastation was caused by the United States. When Kirby and other Biden administration officials refer to, as they currently do, an enduring “over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability” – drone strikes, some manned airstrikes – these are its wages. Whether we reporters continue to pay attention to them is a different story, and our track record is not good.
Among the people killed was Ahmadi’s son-in-law-to-be, 30-year old Ahmad Naser. According to Aikins, Naser worked for the U.S. military as a contractor in Herat. He had come all the way from western Afghanistan in the hopes of being among the Afghans who received, as a reward for their service, a special immigrant visa, his ticket out. Instead, the Americans, whatever they meant to do, killed him.