The US mistakenly targeted and killed an innocent aid worker for an American company in a drone strike in Afghanistan, the New York Times suggested in an investigation into the country’s final military action of the recently concluded 20-year war.
The victim, the newspaper said, was 43-year-old Zemari Ahmadi, who died with nine members of his family, including seven children, when a missile from a US air force Reaper drone struck his car as he arrived home from work in a residential neighborhood of Kabul.
US military officials have insisted the targets of the 29 August operation were Islamic State suicide bombers plotting an attack on Kabul airport similar to that which killed 13 American troops helping with evacuations, and more than 170 others three days earlier.
The action, Gen Mark Milley, chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, insisted, was a “righteous strike” against Isis-K members who had been observed at points during the day loading what a surveillance team thought to be explosives into the vehicle and visiting a known safe house of the terrorist group.
But the Times’ reporting, compiled from extensive video analysis, interviews with Ahmadi’s colleagues and family, and visits to the scene, casts considerable and potentially devastating doubt on that US official version of events.
What the US military observers figured was Ahmadi acting suspiciously, the newspaper said, was him going about his normal business as a worker for the California-based aid group Nutrition and Education International.
His duties that day included dropping off colleagues at various places in Kabul, according to the director of NEI in Afghanistan interviewed by a Times reporter, and the “explosives” in the vehicle were water cartons that Ahmadi filled from a hose at his office and was taking home to his family.
“We have nothing to do with terrorism or Isis. We love America. We want to go there,” said the director, who was quoted anonymously because of the danger of being associated with a US company doing business in Afghanistan.
The Washington Post also published its own investigation into the deadly US strike, which reached similar conclusions, including that there was no indication of a second, larger explosion at the residential compound that Milley suggested was evidence of explosives in the back of the Ahmadi’s car.
The Post quoted several experts who concluded that the damage captured in images of the aftermath of the strike were consistent only with the explosion of a single Hellfire missile from the drone and subsequent rupture of the car’s fuel tank.
Ahmadi, who had worked for NEI since 2006, lived at the compound with two of his brothers and their families. The 10 victims, the Times said, were all related to him, including three of his own children, aged between 10 and 20, and five other relatives aged two to seven.
“All of them were innocent,” Emal, Ahmadi’s brother, told the Times. “You say he was Isis, but he worked for the Americans.”
The relative said Ahmadi and a cousin both had open resettlement applications for the US for themselves and their families.
The Times also spoke to neighbors and an Afghan health official who confirmed that children’s bodies were removed from the site. A reporter who visited the following day saw blood splattered on interior walls and ceilings, and photographs provided by Ahmadi’s relatives of the burned bodies of the children.
In remarks following the strike, Milley conceded the US was aware of at least three deaths. “Were there others killed? Yes, there are others killed. Who they are, we don’t know.”
The Department of Defense is conducting its own investigation into the strike, which the Post reported was not yet conclusive. An anonymous senior military official who spoke to the newspaper said the area where Ahmadi’s car was hit, about four miles west of Kabul airport, was not previously known to military or intelligence analysts.
US Central Command, the defense department wing reviewing the incident, did not provide comment to either newspaper.
The US military already has a deadly record of errors in drone strike operations in Afghanistan. In 2008, 47 civilians, including 39 women and children, were killed as they travelled to a wedding.