By Saleh Mamon
On Monday 30th August reports began to emerge that a drone strike in Kabul had killed a family. The reports were fragmentary and there was uncertainty about the numbers. The earliest report was a brief one from CNN at 8.50pm Eastern Time. I picked this up when John Pilger tweeted saying that there were unconfirmed reports of nine members of one Afghan family including six children killed. Someone had taken a screen shot of the CNN report and tweeted it.
Later the CNN journalists filed a detailed report with photos of eight of the ten who were killed. If you have a look at these photos, they cease to be abstract numbers and names. Here are beautiful children and men in their prime whose lives were cut short. The New York Times also reported the details. The Los Angeles Times had a comprehensive report showing the photos, the incinerated husk of the family car with relatives gathering around it, the grieving relatives and the funerals.
The two LA Times journalists who visited the site observed a hole where a projectile had punched through passenger side of the car. The car was a heap of metal, melted plastic and scraps of what seemed to be human flesh and a tooth. There were metal fragments consistent with some kind of missile. The outside walls of the Ahmadis’ home were spattered with bloodstains that had begun to turn brown.
By complete chance, I watched the BBC news at 11pm on Monday which featured a BBC World Service Newsday report on this drone strike in detail, interviewing a relative who cried at the end. The air strike killed ten of his relatives including six children. The presenter was Yalda Hakim. There was a clip showing relatives combing through the remains in the burnt out car. Ramin Yousufi, a relative of the victims, said, “It’s wrong, it’s a brutal attack, and it’s happened based on wrong information.”
Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s veteran correspondent who was in Kabul, when asked about the incident, made a general comment that this was one of the tragedies of the war. Yalda Hakim, instead of interviewing any US national security officials about the incident, went on to interview the Pakistani ambassador in the US about Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban.
The BBC news at 10 o’clock, presented by Mishal Hussain, had a more detailed segment. It showed BBC correspondent Sikender Karman at the Ahmadi family home near the incinerated car and the family member combing through the wreckage for remains of the dead. Someone picked up a burnt finger. He interviewed a family member and described the episode as an awful human tragedy. Again there was a failure to question any US official.
The reports in the US media were detailed and graphic compared to what was published in the British media. As one would expect, the tabloids completely ignored the story. The next day on Tuesday 31st, some British newspapers carried a few photos of the dead on their front pages.
Using these reports, it was possible for me to piece together what had happened. After a day of work on Sunday, at about 4.30pm Zemari Ahmadi pulled into the narrow street where he lived with his extended family, with three brothers (Ajmal, Ramal and Emal) and their families in Khwaja Burgha, a working-class neighbourhood a few miles west of Kabul’s airport. Seeing his white Toyota Corolla, the children ran outside to greet him. Some clambered aboard in the street, other family members gathered around as he pulled the car into the courtyard of their home.
His son Farzad, aged 12, asked if he could park the car. Zemari moved to the passenger side and allowed him to get into the driving seat. This is when a missile from a drone that was buzzing in the sky above the neighbourhood struck the car and instantly killed all those in and around the car. Mr. Ahmadi and some of the children were killed inside his car; others were fatally wounded in adjacent rooms, family members said.
Those killed by the strike were Aya, 11, Malika, 2, Sumaya, 2, Binyamen, 3, Armin, 4, Farzad, 10, Faisal, 16, Zamir, 20, Naseer, 30 and Zemari, 40. Zamir, Faisal, and Farzad were the sons of Zemari. Aya, Binyamen and Armin were the children of Zamir’s brother Ramal. Sumaya was the daughter of his brother Emal. Naseer was his nephew. The loss of these loved family members to the surviving members must have left them all heartbroken and inconsolable. That fatal drone strike changed their lives forever. Their dreams and hopes were shattered.
For the last 16 years, Zemari had worked with the US charity Nutrition & Education International (NEI), based in Pasadena as a technical engineer. In an email to the New York Times Steven Kwon, the president of NEI, said of Mr. Ahmadi: “He was well respected by his colleagues and compassionate towards the poor and needy,” and recently he “prepared and delivered soy-based meals to hungry women and children at local refugee camps in Kabul.”
Naseer had worked with US special forces in the western Afghan city of Herat, and had also served as a guard for the US Consulate there before joining the Afghan National Army, family members said. He had arrived in Kabul to pursue his application for a special immigration visa for the US. He was about to be married to Zemari’s sister, Samia whose photo showing her grieving appeared in New York Times.
In response to the killing of innocent children, US national security officials resorted to familiar justifications. Firstly, they had targeted an individual planning suicide attacks on Hamid Karzai Airport in a defensive operation based on actionable intelligence. Secondly, they said there were secondary explosions, with the vehicle carrying substantive explosive material that killed people. This line was a well prepared public relations spin.
The Pentagon press conference fronted by a general and press secretary was equally revealing. There were two anodyne questions about the drone strike killings. Most questions were about the five rockets that were fired towards the airport, three of which never reached the airport and two of which were intercepted by the US defence system. When referring to the drone strike, everyone refrained from mentioning the children – they talked about civilian deaths. The party line was repeated without reservations. There was a promise of an investigation, but there is unlikely to be any transparency or accountability, as findings have never been released in previous drone killings.
Again, the gross failure to hold the Pentagon officials to account stood out. This moral blindness is the result of the underlying racism that accepts without reservation US attacks on civilians as legitimate and looks away from the deaths of civilians who are non-white. The same ranking applies to innocent children and the sympathies they evoke. There is a ranking system for deaths, with the deaths of US and allied soldiers leading the rank and Afghan deaths at the bottom.
The media coverage on Afghanistan in Britain was a classic inversion of truth and reality. Instead of holding the elites in the US, the UK and their allies to account for 20 years of war on one of the poorest countries in the world and theirfailure to bring freedom and democracy, the entire focus was on the bestiality of the Taliban who now had to be accountable to the so called ‘international community’. The savagery of the Afghanistan war was re-written in pictures showing soldiers rescuing children and dogs.
Reports from all the journalists who interviewed the family members and also people in the neighbourhood clearly show that this was an errant strike. The US military was on alert after the suicide bombings at Kabul airport that claimed the lives of 13 US army personnel and over a hundred Afghans on Thursday August 26th. It had launched three strikes on what it believed to be IS-K (Islamic State-Khorasan). Ground level intelligence is vital to avoid any collateral damage.
There was a failure of intelligence in the case of this drone strike. It lays bare the dangers of the Pentagon’s long term counterterrorism strategy of so-called over-the-horizon attacks. Even when US troops were fully deployed in Afghanistan, with American special forces working alongside Afghan security forces, intelligence was often shoddy and led to mounting civilian casualties.
Secret drone strikes have been widely used in Afghanistan. Figures are extremely hard to pin down. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalists which maintains a database to map and count the drone strikes, between 2015 and now, 13,072 drone strikes were confirmed. It estimates that anywhere between 4,126 to 10,076 people were killed and between 658 and 1,769 injured.
The horrific killing of members of the Ahmadi family as the US abandoned Afghanistan is symbolic of the total warfare on the Afghan people for two decades. Identifying the elusive terrorists among the Afghans made every Afghan a suspect. Secret drone warfare portends the arrival of technological extermination for people on the periphery as the imperial powers attempt to subjugate and discipline them.
All people of conscience should speak out boldly and critically against these destructive wars based on the deception of bringing freedom and democracy. We must question the legitimacy of state terrorism which is hundreds of times more destructive than the terrorism of political groups or individuals. There are no military solutions to the political, economic and ecological issues that we confront across the world. Peace, dialogue and reconstruction are the way forward.
Saleh Mamon is a retired teacher who campaigns for peace and justice. His research interests focus on imperialism and underdevelopment, both their history and continuing presence. He is committed to democracy, socialism and secularism. He blogs at https://salehmamon.com/
Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts