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Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gathered around the incinerated husk of a vehicle hit by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul

Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gathered around the incinerated husk of a vehicle hit by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 30, 2021. (Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Denial of Wrongdoing in Deadly Kabul Strike Reveals 'Systemic Problem' at Pentagon: Critics

According to the Pentagon's assessment, the military "followed all rules and then killed an entire family," said one critic. "Might the rules, or the whole drone project, need a review?"

Kenny Stancil

Following a Pentagon official's assertion Wednesday that the August 29 airstrike in a Kabul neighborhood that killed 10 innocent Afghan civilians, including seven children, was not the result of misconduct or negligence, human rights advocates reiterated that the United States' remote-controlled assassination program is "rotten" from top to bottom and called for a moratorium on drone warfare.

"We need to shut down these strikes until we figure out what the hell is going on."

"If a U.S. drone attack that killed civilians was not caused by misconduct or negligence, it means the Army followed all rules and then killed an entire family," said Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. "Might the rules, or the whole drone project, need a review? Or is this considered just a cost of doing America's business?"

Air Force Lt. Gen. Sami Said, the inspector general of the Air Force who is deemed independent because "he had no direct connection to Afghanistan operations," conducted the classified probe, which "found there were breakdowns in communication and in the process of identifying and confirming the target of the bombing," the Associated Press reported. "Said concluded that the mistaken strike happened despite prudent measures to prevent civilian deaths."

If "the mistaken strike happened despite prudent measures to prevent civilian deaths," does that mean "the Pentagon admits we have a systemic problem?" asked Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Although surveillance videos showed that at least one child was in the strike zone two minutes before the U.S. military launched a missile, Said claimed that "the footage showing the presence of a child would have been easy to miss in real-time," the New York Times reported.

"I'm just saying it is 100% not obvious," the Air Force inspector general told reporters during a Pentagon briefing. "You have to be like, no kidding, looking for it. But when you're looking for it, certainly after the fact, if you ask me, was there evidence of the presence? Yes, there was."

"Given the information they had and the analysis that they did—I understand they reached the wrong conclusion, but... was it reasonable to conclude what they concluded based on what they had? It was not unreasonable. It just turned out to be incorrect," Said added.

Said's review, endorsed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, does not recommend disciplinary action for the U.S. military personnel who carried out the deadly strike, which, according to the Pentagon, did not violate the laws of war.

"According to the inspector general, there was a mistake but no one acted wrongly, and I'm left wondering, how can that be?"

Originally, Gen. Mark Milley described the August 29 drone attack as a "righteous strike" that targeted a parked vehicle suspected of holding explosives, along with the driver and another man suspected of having militant ties.

After a pair of investigations by the New York Times and the Washington Post revealed that there were no bombs in the car, the men accused of "suspicious" behavior were engaged in peaceful activities related to the driver's job, and there were eight additional defenseless individuals in the vicinity of the sedan destroyed by a missile fired after several hours of surveillance, the Pentagon admitted that it had made a "horrible mistake" and offered "condolence payments" to relatives of the victims.

Zemari Ahmadi, an Afghan engineer who started working for a California-based aid group called Nutrition and Education International (NEI) in 2006, had been loading canisters of water into a white Toyota Corolla owned by NEI before the U.S. military slaughtered him and nine members of his family.

Ahmadi and his family members were killed in the last known airstrike prior to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan following two decades of devastating war that caused more than 240,000 deaths, displaced nearly six million Afghans, and cost U.S. taxpayers over $2.3 trillion, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University.

The August 29 drone strike came just three days after a deadly ISIS-K attack on Kabul's international airport, and "Said concluded that U.S. forces genuinely believed that the car they were following was an imminent threat and that they needed to strike it before it got closer to the airport," AP reported.

"They all have a genuine belief based on the information they had and the interpretation, that that was a threat to U.S. forces, an imminent threat to U.S. forces," he told reporters. "That's a mistake. It's a regrettable mistake. It's an honest mistake. I understand the consequences, but it's not criminal conduct, random conduct, negligence."

NEI president Steven Kwon was "deeply disappointed" by the Pentagon's report.

"According to the inspector general, there was a mistake but no one acted wrongly, and I'm left wondering, how can that be?" Kwon said in a statement. "Clearly, good military intentions are not enough when the outcome is 10 precious Afghan civilian lives lost and reputations ruined."

Airwars, a military watchdog that monitors and seeks to reduce civilian harm in violent conflict zones, released a report in September showing that airstrikes conducted by the U.S. have killed between 22,000 and 48,000 civilians during the so-called "War on Terror" pursued in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

"The very concept of these lethal human strikes is rotten and no amount of internal review will change that."

Despite officials' claims that the drone assassination program is highly precise and targeted at militants, U.S. strikes have killed hundreds of Afghan civilians in recent years. According to documents leaked by former Air Force intelligence analyst Daniel Hale—who was sentenced to nearly four years in prison in July—nearly 90% of the people killed during one five-month period of a U.S. drone operation in Afghanistan were not the intended targets.

"NEI and the surviving family members have repeatedly asked for meaningful transparency and accountability for the wrongful killing of their loved ones, but they did not receive it today," Hina Shamsi, director of ACLU's National Security Project, said in a statement. "The inspector general's main findings of error, confirmation bias, and communication breakdowns are all too common with U.S. lethal strikes, and his recommendations do not remedy the tremendous harm here, or the likelihood that it will happen again."

Following the deadly attack in Kabul during the final days of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the Council on American-Islamic Relations demanded that the Biden administration immediately impose a "moratorium on drone warfare."

After the Pentagon admitted in September that it had made a mistake, Brian Castner, senior crisis advisor with Amnesty International's Crisis Response Program, said that "many similar strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia have happened out of the spotlight, and the U.S. continues to deny responsibility while devastated families suffer in silence."

"The U.S.," he added, "must ensure that it ends unlawful strikes, consistently and thoroughly investigates all allegations of civilians harmed in attacks, and publicly discloses its findings."

Such calls have been amplified in the wake of the Pentagon's denial on Wednesday that its actions were illegal.

Weinstein from the Quincy Institute, for instance, said that "we need to shut down these strikes until we figure out what the hell is going on."

"The fact that the strike occurred despite prudent measures just affirms that the Pentagon has a systemic problem on its hands," Weinstein told Insider. "The very concept of these lethal human strikes is rotten and no amount of internal review will change that. It's a fool's errand to try to regulate what is so fundamentally flawed."

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