Afghanistan: Killing Of Civilians Requires More Than An Apology

On 17 September, American officials admitted that an August drone attack in Kabul did not kill an ISIS-K operative as initially claimed. Instead, the drone strike which occurred on August 29 killed an aid worker and nine other members of his family. United States officials have apologized, but surviving members of the family say this is not enough.

The attack that took place late last month targeted and killed Zemerai Ahmadi, an engineer who worked for a non-profit called Nutrition and Education International. For eight hours that day, the U.S. had been tracking his vehicle – officials believed it to be carrying explosives in the boot. According to his younger brother Aimal, the attack happened just as Zemerai came home from work. The elder Ahmadi had asked one of his sons to park the car inside the two-floor home; expecting to go the U.S. Zemerai wanted his older sons to practice driving before they arrived. Several of the family’s children quickly packed into the car, wanting to take the short ride from the street to the garden of the family home. As the car came to a stop, a U.S. Hellfire missile struck it. Seven children were killed in the attack.

In a statement, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed his regret for the strike. “[W]e now know that there was no connection between Mr. Ahmadi and ISIS-Khorasan, that his activities… were completely harmless and not… related to the imminent threat we believed we faced,” Austin said in the statement. “[W]e apologize, and we will endeavor to learn from this horrible mistake.” While one would usually expect such a declaration to be empty words, American officials have already altered their practices in the region. The authority to carry out strikes against extremist groups in Afghanistan no longer rests with U.S. commanders in the region, one defense official told Reuters. Instead, Austin will have to authorize future strikes. However, this is not enough for the family.

Aimal Ahmadi, whose three-year-old daughter Malika was among those killed, does not find an apology sufficient. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ahmadi said, “I lost 10 members of my family; I want justice,” adding “We are innocent people.” Ahmadi finds it difficult to believe that this strike was carried out without officials realizing their error. Of U.S. drone capabilities, he said they “can see from everywhere… [T]hey can see that there were innocent children near… and in the car.” Whoever did this should be punished.” While unlikely, punishment of those responsible would demonstrate greater remorse from the U.S. better than an apology ever could. At least, the U.S. ought to provide the family with reparations and undertake an extremely thorough investigation to determine why military intelligence failed so significantly in this case.

Friday’s admittance of guilt highlights the problems with ongoing counterterrorism efforts. This was a failure of military intelligence that resulted in a targeted strike on a civilian aid worker which killed not just the individual, but members his family. The case of Zemerai Ahmadi received greater scrutiny only because media attention was focused on Kabul, with journalists on the ground making clear from the outset that this attack targeted civilians and not extremists. How many other cases like this have occurred over the past two decades of the War on Terror?