A Reaper MQ-9 Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) prepares for takeoff in Afghanistan. Photographer: Corporal Steve Follows

When we kill the innocent.

A damning series of reports from Afghanistan.
Isaac Saul Sep 14, 2021
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On August 29th, just a few days after a devastating ISIS-K suicide bombing killed more than a hundred people in Afghanistan, the American press began reporting a successful retaliatory strike.

Here is the lede from a Reuters article that day:

American forces launched a drone strike in Kabul on Sunday that killed a suicide car bomber suspected of preparing to attack the airport, U.S. officials said, as the United States nears the end of its military presence in the Afghan capital.

The strike, first reported by Reuters, was the second carried out by U.S. forces in Afghanistan since an Islamic State suicide bomber struck the airport on Thursday, killing 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghan civilians trying to flee the country.

One U.S. official said Sunday's strike was carried out by an unmanned aircraft and that secondary explosions following the strike showed the vehicle had been carrying a “substantial amount of explosive material.”

The official U.S. military story, which was repeated dutifully by much of the press in the ensuing hours after the strike, described a potential ISIS-K threat who had been seen loading explosives into his car, and had even stopped at an ISIS-K safehouse.

We are now fairly certain, however, that this entire story is fiction.

A Reaper MQ-9 Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) prepares for takeoff in Afghanistan. Photographer: Corporal Steve Follows

Instead, it appears the Reaper drone that leveled an imminent ISIS-K threat planning to bomb the Kabul airport actually killed Zemari Ahmadi, a 43-year-old veteran aid worker for a U.S.-based company who was, in all likelihood, one of the many Afghans attempting to flee to the United States. Along with Ahmadi, nine other civilians were killed, including seven children.

We know this not because the Pentagon has acknowledged its “mistake” — to use a word that does not fit the crime — but because of the dogged reporting of journalists on the ground and the Afghan civilians who have spoken out.

Two reports, one from The Washington Post and another from The New York Times, paint a much different picture than the one we got from the U.S. military. The Post story managed to get an anonymous “senior U.S. military official” to admit the strike had killed at least three children; it also took images of the damage to a physicist and bomb technicians who examined the physical evidence and concluded the car was not carrying explosives, as the initial reports had claimed.

A few days later, a 10-minute long video investigation by The New York Times, accompanied by interviews with more than a dozen coworkers and family of Ahmadi, painted an even darker picture.

Rather than visiting ISIS-K safehouses in Kabul, Ahmadi was actually giving his colleagues rides to work. Rather than loading explosives into his vehicle, Ahmadi was actually loading canisters of water into his trunk for his neighbors and family. And rather than being an ISIS-K militant, Ahmadi had been working since 2006 as an electrical engineer for Nutrition and Education International (NEI), a California-based aid group. At 8:45 am that morning, Ahmadi’s boss had called him and told him to pick up his laptop from work, so Ahmadi left in his 1996 Toyota Corolla, which belonged to NEI, and which would be incinerated in front of his home a few hours later by a U.S. military drone.

As the latest reports on this drone strike make their way to the people still paying attention to Afghanistan, it’s tough not to see it as a microcosm of the entire war: botched intelligence, dead civilians, an attempt to respond to terrorism with force that instead harms more innocent people, and Afghan allies being forgotten, feared, or — in this case — killed.

And, of course, there is the sequence we’ve now seen so many times. The reports of an explosion. The Pentagon story, to the letter, being the first thing many news outlets reported. Contradictory details slowly emerging. Then equivocation, hedging, promises of investigations and — the part we haven’t gotten to yet but almost surely will — a lack of any semblance of accountability for such a disastrous and deadly error.

I don’t intend to pretend this is easy. I’ve never been to war; I’ve never been on the ground, never commanded troops, never piloted a drone, never had to decide which intelligence was accurate and which was misleading under the shadow of dead U.S. Marines and dozens of dead innocent Afghans with a global populace demanding retribution.

The fuller picture we now have makes it even easier to see how such a mistake could happen. On Ahmadi’s way to work, he stopped at the home of the NEI’s country director. That house was not far from the location of a rocket attack that would come the following day and be claimed by ISIS; an attack that was sent from a rocket launcher concealed inside the trunk of a Toyota Corolla not unlike the very one Ahmadi was driving.

Perhaps, and this is speculation based on the available information we have, the story here is that the U.S. military was aware of an imminent threat — a rocket launcher inside a Toyota Corolla — coming from a known meeting spot for militants. Perhaps Ahmadi drove his own Toyota Corolla within a few blocks of that meeting spot, and then — as the MQ-9 Reaper drone shadowed him for the remainder of the day — he performed just the right number of “suspicious” movements and stops to get the lethal attention of the U.S. military. Perhaps the officers tracking him felt, say, 75 percent confident he was who they thought he was, and on the heels of a suicide bombing that had just killed so many — with a chance to prevent another mass casualty event — they decided that was a high enough confidence rate to pull the trigger.

Very few people ever have to make those decisions.

But here is the story we now have, based on the reports from The Times and The Washington Post: Ahmadi went to work that day. He got his laptop from the NEI director’s office, then he got breakfast. He arrived at the NEI office around 9:30 in the morning, and then he drove co-workers down to a Taliban-occupied police station where he asked permission to distribute food to refugees at a nearby park. Around 2pm, he got back to his office, where he and a security guard used a hose to fill up canisters in his trunk with water. He was doing this because water deliveries had stopped in his neighborhood after the collapse of the Afghan government, so Ahmadi had been bringing water home from the office to people in his neighborhood.

When he got to the courtyard of his home, Ahmadi was in a densely populated residential area. Seeing only another adult male greeting Ahmadi, a tactical commander made the decision to strike his vehicle with a Hellfire missile, assessing “reasonable certainty” that no women, children or non-combatants would be killed. This next part is still unclear, but — again — if we are to believe the narrative from the anonymous military officials, in the time between when the strike was ordered and when the missile hit, which may have been about 30 seconds, several of Ahmadi’s children and his brother’s children came out to greet him. Some even got inside the car. And then the rocket hit.

As of this writing, the U.S. military has continued to insist that a second blast caused by explosives that were inside the car is what caused “collateral damage.” But the journalists and experts who have examined the scene have found evidence of one single, targeted explosion — and no signs of what you’d expect if a second blast had taken place. Only three civilian casualties have been acknowledged, but Ahmadi’s relatives say 10 members of their family — including seven children — were killed. Neighbors and Afghan health officials confirmed they removed bodies of children from the blast sites, but because “fragments of human remains” were strewn across the compound, it has been hard to identify them in any way other than by who is missing. According to The Times, the dead include:

Mr. Ahmadi and three of his children, Zamir, 20, Faisal, 16, and Farzad, 10; Mr. Ahmadi’s cousin Naser, 30; three of Romal’s children, Arwin, 7, Benyamin, 6, and Hayat, 2; and two 3-year-old girls, Malika and Somaya.

I’ve been relieved to see the reports about this strike draw bipartisan condemnation. From stalwart antiwar columnists like Will Bunch to The Wall Street Journal editorial board, demands for answers have been far-reaching and bipartisan.

But no columns or official condemnations seem sufficient. The Pentagon had the gall to call this a “righteous strike” in the hours after it was executed. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has committed himself to “over the horizon” anti-terrorism, the kind of strategy that involves carrying out these very kinds of strikes on this very kind of intelligence.

This screw-up, of course, is far from novel: the most infamous drone disaster of the war was when a U.S. airstrike on an Afghan wedding party killed 47 innocent people, including the bride, in 2008. Some estimates put the total number of dead civilians thanks to the War on Terror at 22,000 since 9/11. One of the darkest stains on President Barack Obama’s time in office is just how many innocents were killed by his administration’s drone program, and how hard they tried to conceal those numbers. Daniel Hale, the whistleblower who is now sitting in prison, revealed the true extent of the failures and the cover ups of our drone program.

Biden, who was in the White House while Obama tarnished his own anti-war legacy, appears to have learned little from those mistakes.

Along with illuminating the laundry list of American errors during the war in Afghanistan, though, the strike should also remind us of the consequences of our brazen attempts at toughness. In the days after the ISIS-K suicide bombing, much as with the days and weeks and months and years after 9/11, many of us wanted revenge. Not justice, but final judgment. It’s worth evaluating how well or badly that attitude has served us, and how President Biden’s tough talk and chest-puffing promises that he would “hunt down” those responsible for the attack have played out, now that we appear to have killed 10 more innocent civilians.

It’s also worth asking what this strike does for our own safety. I’m far from the first to say it, but I’ve come to believe that every U.S. bomb dropped creates dozens more anti-American radicals. And why wouldn’t it? If a foreign nation fired a rocket at your brother’s car as he brought home water to your family, managing to kill some of your children and your nieces and nephews along the way, would you not spend your remaining days on this earth seeking vengeance? Or justice in your own eyes? I imagine I would.

I had a typical Tangle newsletter ready to go today but I decided it should wait — because I don’t think this story can go unacknowledged, and because I didn’t want to try to stuff it into our normal Tangle format.

There are too many important threads: the injustice of war, the military-sourced reporting, the persistent reporting from journalists on the ground in Afghanistan to find the truth, the bipartisan exacerbation of our failed military strategies abroad, and last but certainly not least, the devastating consequences of the War on Terrorism for so many innocent civilians.

The only question now — the one lingering in the air — is if we’ll learn anything from this. What will happen the next time there is a suicide bombing or an unprovoked attack or an ambush or one other of the horrific endings so many people in harm’s way have faced? Will we stick our chests out and level everything in sight, then pat each other on the back for bringing justice to an unjust world, or will we finally think of something better?


Thanks for reading.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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