Emal Ahmadis voice trembles when he talks about that day at the end of August. They were declared as terrorists and erased from the Earth, he said. They were Emals brother Zmarai, two of his own children, and several nieces and nephews. On August 29th of last year, an American Reaper drone killed them outside the familys Kabul home.
While the U.S. military was in the final phase of its troop withdrawal as the city fell to the Taliban, thousands of Afghans crowded the capitals airport, hoping to be evacuated with the departing troops. The Ahmadi family, on the other hand, remained in their home in northern Kabul. Zmarai Ahmadi and his brothersEmal, Romal, and Ajmalcertainly dreamed of a more prosperous life abroad. But they preferred to emigrate through legal means, not through the carnage engulfing Kabuls airport.
The State Department already had the brothers documents. Zmarai worked for an American NGO, while Emal once worked as an interpreter for U.S. troops. Ajmal served in the Afghan National Army. The three of them were convinced that life would become difficult after the Taliban returned to power.
Yet it wasnt the Taliban who menaced the Ahmadis, as their tale took a wild and unexpected turn. On August 26th, a checkpoint at the airports perimeter was attacked by the Islamic State (known locally as Daesh), killing around 200 people, including 13 U.S. service members. Shortly thereafter, the U.S., in the predictable fashion in which it blundered into Afghanistan two decades earlier, retaliated. It conducted two strikes by armed drones.
A deeper look at the history of the U.S. drone war in Afghanistan reveals that the strike against the Ahmadis was not an isolated tragic mistake.
The first operation hit a target in eastern Nangarhar province. According to U.S. officials, it killed one of the terrorists bomb makers. The second drone targeted the Toyota Corolla of Zmarai Ahmadi, whom the U.S. military also suspected of being a Daesh member, in front of his house in Kabul. Ahmadi had just returned home and, as usual, he gave his key to his oldest son to park the car in the backyard. Several of the familys children ran to the gate, eagerly taking their seats inside the car. Moments later, the car was a blazing ball of metal, blown into pieces by a Hellfire missile. It killed its passengers and those close to it, including Zmarai Ahmadi, in an instant inferno.
I heard a loud bang and ran to the gate where I saw my bleeding son. He was not breathing, Romal Ahmadi told the Prospect in an interview. When the drone strike took place, Romal was inside the house. Seeing the massacre with his own eyes, he started crying and could not control himself anymore. Neighbors who appeared at the scene tried to calm him. My condition was very bad. I could not go to the funeral, Romal added.
According to the family and other eyewitnesses, the bodies of the victims were mostly unidentifiable. They were burnt and torn into pieces.
While the Ahmadi family fell into deep grief, the Biden administration stuck to its narrative. It continued claiming that the targets of Americas last drone strike were terrorists who threatened the lives of U.S. soldiers. The Ahmadis, however, were visited by many journalists who quickly proved the opposite. At the end, an in-depth investigation by The New York Times forced the Pentagon to change its tone. Suddenly, it talked about a tragic mistake.
I offer my profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of USCENTCOM, told reporters at a news conference in September. Footage published by the Times showed Zmarai Ahmadi loading empty water cans into his car. At first, the U.S. tried to justify the strike by claiming that Ahmadi had explosives in his trunk.
A deeper look at the history of the U.S. drone war in Afghanistan reveals that the strike against the Ahmadis was not an isolated tragic mistake, however. Throughout the last 20 years, such strikes happened repeatedly. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, more than 13,000 drone strikes took place in Afghanistan between 2015 and 2020. The identities of most of the victimsbetween 4,000 and 10,000 Afghansare unknown.
Thanks to Washingtons military escalation, Afghanistan became the worlds most drone-bombed country during that era. According to Reprieve, a British human rights organization, between 2004 and 2014 more than 1,100 people were killed by U.S. drones during the hunt for just 41 targets. Many of these notorious men are alive today. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Talibans deputy chief who just became Afghanistans new interior minister, was one of them. Another known target was al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is alive too. In fact, he has even recently published a new book.
It was not just Americas last strike that revealed the total failure of the drone war and its distorted narrative, but also its first one 20 years ago. Indeed, the first and last drone strikes were eerily similar. On October 7, 2001, the initial day of Operation Enduring Freedom, which culminated in the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. military and the CIA tried to kill Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in the first drone strike in mankinds history. They failed. The Predator killed several unnamed people, most probably Afghan civilians, in southern Kandahar province. Omar himself fled and was declared dead multiple times in the years following. It ultimately emerged that he died of natural causes in 2013. Until his death, he resided a stones throw away from a U.S. military base in Zabul province. He was never found by the special commandos or the often-praised precise drones.
Critics of the drone war habitually mentioned the flawed technology of the killer weapons. The strike against the Ahmadis proves once again that no matter how long a drone loiters, these devices will never be able to garner true situational awareness of what is happening on the ground. The question to ask is, if we are not striking who we intend to strike, who are we striking? asked Lisa Ling, a former technician with the U.S. Air Force. Ling, once responsible for drone hardware, left the military some years ago and turned into a whistleblower and staunch critic of the governments drone program.
Another former Air Force analyst who followed a similar path was her friend and colleague Daniel Hale, who was responsible for the so-called Drone Papers, a massive leak in 2015 that revealed the dark side of the drone war. Hales leak also underlined that most drone victims in Afghanistan were civilians. Last July, he was sentenced to 45 months in prison by a U.S. court.
Eventually, the Biden administration declared that it wanted to compensate the Ahmadi family for the strike. Further details about the amount or timing of the payment are not yet known. In 2016, the U.S. government paid $1.2 million to the family of Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian aid worker killed by a drone strike in Pakistan in January 2015. Similar payments to the families of Afghan or Pakistani drone victims never took place.
The Americans told us several times that they would pay compensation, but until now we are yet to receive even a personal apology, said Emal Ahmadi, now living with one of his sisters. The familys yard and parts of their house are still destroyed. With the hope of compensation payments, the Ahmadis wish to emigrate to the United States in the near future. No money could bring back the dead, but maybe there is a chance to restart a new life somewhere else in peace, he said.