Afghans Somber but Not Surprised as U.S. Calls Drone Strike a ‘Tragic Mistake’
Afghans expressed a familiar anger at the Pentagon’s admission that an attack killing 10 civilians was a mistake, one of many such errors during the 20-year war.
The Pentagon’s public apology and admission of having made a “tragic mistake” in killing an Afghan aid worker and seven children from his extended family in a drone strike was broadcast Saturday on Afghan television, but appeared to bring little solace to the family members left behind.
Images on Afghan television and social media showed some relatives holding up photos of the lost children to reporters, including of a child as young as 2 who died in the blast. Another image showed several of the somber-faced relatives seated on the dusty, rocky hillside where the family members were buried. In total, 10 civilians were killed in the strike.
On social media, Afghans expressed anger and frustration, but little surprise, at the Pentagon’s mistake, although they demanded compensation for the family. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, said the military was discussing the possibility of payments.
For more than two weeks, the United States military had insisted the attack on Aug. 29 was warranted and that the aid worker, Zemari Ahmadi, who helped provide basic food items to impoverished Afghans, was connected to the Islamic State. One general called the attack “righteous” and insisted there had been secondary explosions, implying that explosives had been in the vehicle.
After a deeper review by the Pentagon, which followed a New York Times investigation casting doubt on Mr. Ahmadi’s connection to ISIS and on any explosives being in his vehicle, the military concluded that there had been a series of mistakes.
“We now know that there was no connection between Mr. Ahmadi and ISIS-Khorasan, that his activities on that day were completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat we believed we faced, and that Mr. Ahmadi was just as innocent a victim as were the others tragically killed,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III in a statement.
Far from being an enemy of the United States, Mr. Ahmadi was hoping to emigrate there.
The aid organization he worked for over the past 15 years, Nutrition and Education International, or NEI, was based in Pasadena, Calif. It was founded by a nutrition scientist who had observed firsthand the malnutrition in Afghanistan’s Balkh Province while lecturing there in 2003, according to the organization’s website, and he started the nonprofit to encourage Afghan farmers to grow soybeans.
The organization helped establish processing facilities — Mr. Ahmadi worked on setting up 11 of them — so that the beans could be made ready for cooking. Staff members then distributed the harvest to needy families.
On its website, the organization has a tribute to Mr. Ahmadi noting that “Zemari was well respected by his colleagues and compassionate towards the poor and needy.”
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NEI had begun the process of filing refugee forms so that Mr. Ahmadi could emigrate with his family to the United States.
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While the drone strike has received considerable attention, in part because it came in the last 48 hours the United States was in Afghanistan, it was a familiar sequence for Afghans and those who track civilian casualties.
Over much of the last 20 years, the United States has repeatedly targeted the wrong people in its effort to go after terrorists. While it has killed many who were connected in one way or another to organizations that threatened the United States, there is a well-documented record of strikes that killed innocent people from almost the very first months of its presence in Afghanistan, starting in December 2001 and ending with the death of Mr. Ahmadi and members of his family.
In the years in between, the United States killed dozens of civilians at a weddingand more than 100 civilians, many of them children, in Farah Province in 2009. In 2016, the military mistakenly bombed a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz Province that killed 42 doctors, patients and medical staff.
“The U.S. military has admitted to hundreds and hundreds of ‘mistaken’ killings over nearly 20 years of airstrikes, typically only after initially denying problems and then only investigating after public exposure by media or other independent observers,” John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, wrote in a Twitter post on Friday, shortly after the military took responsibility for the mistake.
“The U.S. has a terrible record in this regard, and after decades of failed accountability, in the context of the end of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. should acknowledge that their processes have failed, and that vital reforms and more independent outside scrutiny is vital,” he said.
Sami Sahak, Wali Arian and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting."