Military Drone Strike That Killed Afghan Aid Worker, Children Has Hallmarks of Intelligence Failure

“The evidence increasingly indicates that a U.S. drone strike that took place outside Kabul as America withdrew from Afghanistan killed not a terrorist but an aid worker, along with nine other civilians, including several children.

On August 29, the U.S. military launched a strike on what Central Command said was a vehicle transporting explosives on behalf of the Islamic State. According to the Pentagon, the target posed an “imminent” threat to the Kabul Airport. This was just days after suicide bombers killed at least 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops, and tensions were high.

A military spokesperson said there were “significant secondary explosions” as a result of the drone hit. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it a “righteous strike” that foiled a potential attack.

In reality, that strike hit a car that had been driven by humanitarian aid worker Zamari Ahmadi. Ahmadi was killed, along with two other adults and seven children. And follow-up media investigations are casting serious doubt on the military’s account.

Credit both The New York Times and The Washington Post for reconstructing what actually happened. The Times has assembled an account of Ahmadi’s final day, with the help of security surveillance footage, to show that what military intelligence may have assumed as suspicious behavior was Ahmadi’s typical work. He worked for Nutrition and Education International, a California-based charity, and the sedan belonged to the organization. He is seen on camera loading the back of his white sedan with not explosives, but containers of water. The president of his group has denied that Ahmadi had any connections with the Islamic State.

Even more damning is what both the Post and the Times heard from experts analyzing the wreckage of the drone strike. Ahmadi’s car was hit by a Hellfire missile with a 20-pound payload. The damage to the car and the courtyard where he was parked matched the amount of destruction associated with the missile, but the evidence that there were explosives in the car is sorely lacking. According to eyewitnesses, the “significant secondary explosions” did not take place.”

“The drone strike seemed to have been carried out with about as much evidence that it would require for a police officer in the United States to get a search warrant.”

“The military was tracking communications it believed were from Islamic State terrorists. And the day after Ahmadi was killed, the Times reports, Islamic State terrorists did launch a rocket attack toward the airport from a neighborhood Ahmadi had traveled through the previous day. The vehicle they launched the attack from was a white Toyota, a sedan that looked a lot like Ahmadi’s. Did they get the cars mixed up during surveillance?”

“We have no idea how frequently these types of seemingly mistaken strikes happen, partly because the military has been deliberately secretive and partly because what information we’ve gotten has not been trustworthy. Outside observers estimate that between 300 and 900 civilians killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan during the two decades Americans were there. There have been dozens, possibly even hundreds, of strikes like this.”

‘We Never Got It. Not Even Close’: Afghanistan Veterans Reflect on 20 Years of War

“When I came back to Afghanistan [in 2011], it was a very, very different paradigm. The IED techniques had migrated from Iraq. You couldn’t drive anywhere. When I was [in Afghanistan in 2001], we were on horseback or we’re on foot or we’re in light-skinned vehicles. Now, you couldn’t get from A to B without being in an armored vehicle or flying a helicopter.

But the biggest problem—the big point where I said, things aren’t going as well as I had hoped for — was dealing with these district governors, whom I dealt with frequently. They didn’t have a long view. They were not invested in the central government. There were a lot of reasons for that. Every day was a new day to them and it was a fight for survival. They had no incentive to build these relationships that we designed for them.

For example, we were paying nine and a half dollars per gallon to ship gas from Karachi to outlying districts. And when I approached the district governor—’Hey, you need to learn how to use your own bureaucratic requisition systems’—he said, ‘Why should I do that when you’re doing it for me?’ And he was dead serious. And of course, he died a couple of months later, as probably 60 percent of the guys who I worked with did on the Afghan side.”

“We made a lot of efforts to pacify villages that were more hostile to us. And we succeeded in some cases by putting an Afghan National Police checkpoint in a village that didn’t have one to help deter the Taliban from launching rockets at the base. [In one instance] we convinced a village elder, who was a Ghilzai Pashtun, to support us, which was a big deal because many of the people to whom he had tribal ties were Taliban supporters.

But he was assassinated. Then his brother stood up and took his place and said, ‘We’ll stand with the government, the Americans.’ And he was assassinated. By that point, the Taliban had essentially regained control of the village. I spoke to one gentleman on the side of the road one day, and he was subsequently beheaded for talking to me and made an example of.

I saw through that that some of these things were almost Pyrrhic victories because we were doing the things that, [per] the counterinsurgency manual, doctrinally, we were doing the right things. And we were succeeding in some cases. But at the end of the day, the sacrifice and the loss of trust in the villages was starting to hamper our effectiveness in getting people to want to work with us, to follow our goals and objectives, to cooperate with us and to resist the Taliban and ultimately for us to succeed. I think they were going to have to resist them on their own. We couldn’t maintain a permanent presence of U.S. forces indefinitely to keep them safe or to deter the Taliban.”

The Case for Accepting Afghan Refugees

“Keeping out refugees and other would-be migrants often harms current American citizens, too. I detailed some of the ways here. Perhaps the closest historical analogue to the current situation is the fall of Saigon, in 1975, after which the US accepted 130,000 Vietnamese refugees, in the immediate aftermath, and many more in succeeding years. Vietnamese immigrants have become valuable contributors to America’s economy and society, despite being from a poor society with many cultural differences relative to the US. There is every reason to expect that Afghan migrants can follow in their footsteps.

In addition to these general considerations, there are also some specific to the Afghan case. To begin with, in this instance the US government does deserve a share of the blame for the horrible situation Afghans find themselves in.

The exact scope of US responsibility for the present debacle is a matter of debate. But, at the very least, Donald Trump bears a hefty share of blame for signing a terrible agreement with the Taliban last year, including releasing 5000 Taliban prisoners, many of whom predictably rejoined the fight. Joe Biden deserves great blame, as well, including for doubling down on Trump’s awful policy despite the availability of less-bad alternatives, and for the terrible planning and management of the withdrawal. While the primary responsibility for Taliban oppression rests with the Taliban themselves, the US government contributed to the sorry state of affairs that led to the restoration of Taliban rule, and thereby has a greater-than-usual obligation to give refuge to its victims.

There are also more pragmatic reasons for aiding Afghan refugees. Many of those now fleeing helped US forces or worked with Americans and other Westerners to promote human rights in Afghanistan, particularly equality for women. If we do not give refuge to to our allies and supporters, we further damage our already diminished reputation for being reliable and trustworthy allies. The Afghan war is unlikely to be the last time we will need local help to combat terrorists and other adversaries. Such assistance is unlikely to be forthcoming if those who might provide it fear that the US will repay them by leaving them in the lurch.”

“Some fear that accepting large numbers of Afghan refugees would risk a wave of crime or terrorism. Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute explains why such fears are overblown. Indeed, as he documents, Afghan migrants actually have lower rates of crime and terrorism than native-born Americans. And, obviously, those most eager to flee Taliban rule are unlikely to share its ideology.”

“It will not be easy to come to grips with the disastrous outcome in Afghanistan, or to figure out all the lessons that might be drawn from it. But the US can start by doing right by those fleeing oppression.”

Opium Suppression in Afghanistan Was a US-led Failure

“one underappreciated mistake has been Washington’s long-running effort to suppress the cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan and, in turn, the production of heroin and other opioids. The campaign most likely had little effect on the amount of poppy grown. Instead it shifted cultivation to Taliban-controlled territories, bolstering the militia’s revenues.”

“American efforts to suppress poppy cultivation, either through direct eradication or through incentives to grow other crops, failed to account for the basics of supply and demand. Suppression policies focus on shrinking supply, which means a fixed quantity of opium will become more expensive to produce. These policies involve a mix of threats to destroy poppy fields and the provision of resources (such as fertilizers) to encourage farmers to cultivate other crops. But if demand is not very sensitive to price increases, the quantity demanded will change little in response to the reduction in supply.”

Withdrawing From Afghanistan Is Still the Right Thing To Do

“In 20 years of conflict, the U.S. has accomplished its initial security goals. The 2001-era Taliban was ousted, and since 9/11, no terrorist attack on U.S. soil has been carried out by an organization rooted in Afghanistan. Security concerns now lie elsewhere. “The Biden administration correctly assessed that the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan today is in fact smaller than from various parts of Africa and the Middle East,” as Vanda Felbab-Brown writes for the Brookings Institution. Al Qaeda’s capacities are limited. To say that Afghanistan hosts the same level of outward threat that it once did is patently false.

Internal threats do exist, largely in the form of a Taliban emboldened by the U.S. departure. Taliban fighters say they’ve gained control of 85 percent of Afghanistan—a claim the Afghan government has dismissed as propaganda. It’s impossible to correctly assess current territory holdings, but Taliban attacks and seizures have increased recently. As a result, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that the Afghan government could fall just six months after the Americans take their leave. Two former secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, both worry about the implications of a full withdrawal; Rice even suggested the U.S. may need to return, according to Axios.”

“It’s extremely unlikely that a 21st year of conflict would be decisive after the first 20 haven’t been. We know the nature of the conflict and what continued warfare would involve—more dead soldiers, more dead civilians, and an increasingly futile commitment to nation building that will, in all likelihood, result in a less stable country.”

“Leaving without a clear picture of what Afghanistan’s government will look like in just a few months is an unsatisfying conclusion to America’s longest war. That doesn’t mean the U.S. should put off its withdrawal, or that it should already be gearing up to send troops back. While there may be an effective American role to be had in facilitating future peace talks between Afghanistan’s warring parties, American participation in the conflict must end.
Politicians are wrong to treat the Afghanistan withdrawal as Biden’s fatal blow. It’s a sign of humility—recognizing where the U.S. has failed and where it cannot possibly succeed. It’s quite easy for presidents to start wars. It’s another thing entirely to end them.”

Why Biden was so set on withdrawing from Afghanistan

“To understand President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan against the advice of the US military establishment, you need to go back to a debate that played out more than a decade ago, during the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

In 2009, the new Obama administration debated whether to “surge” troop levels in Afghanistan after nearly eight years of war had failed to quell the insurgency from the overthrown Taliban forces. Top generals asked early that year for 17,000 more US troops and then, having gotten those, asked for an additional 40,000 to try to weaken the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan government.

Then-Vice President Biden was consistently one of the biggest skeptics of the military’s recommendations. Throughout months of debate, he repeatedly raised the inconvenient point that the generals’ preferred strategy seemed extremely unlikely to lead to actual victory. “We have not thought through our strategic goals!” he shouted during the Obama administration’s first meeting on the war in Afghanistan.”

“Biden did not actually support withdrawal at the time — he pushed for a more limited mission focused on counterterrorism, accompanied by a smaller troop surge than the military wanted.

But his dark view of the long-term picture was clearly vindicated in the decade since.”

“Biden wrote a six-page memo to Obama in which he questioned intelligence reports portraying the Taliban as a new al-Qaeda recruiting foreign fighters that posed a transnational terrorist threat. “Biden indicated that, based on the way he read the intelligence reports, the phenomenon was grossly exaggerated,” Woodward writes. “The vice president did not see evidence that the Pashtun Taliban projected a global jihadist ideology, let alone designs on the American homeland.”

At a meeting discussing the US strategy in Afghanistan, Biden asked, “Is there any evidence the Afghan Taliban advocates attacks outside of Afghanistan and on the U.S., or if it took over more of Afghanistan it would have more of an outward focus?” An intelligence official responded that there was no evidence.”

“Woodward describes a phone conversation between the president and vice president near the end of the review, during which Biden said, “it would not be that bad if the Karzai government fell.” The book does not elaborate on what exactly Biden meant by this, but Obama disagreed, arguing that “the downside was too great.””

“Biden diagnosed the problems well, and he was likely the high-level official most skeptical of the Afghanistan war in the Obama administration. But though his logic arguably pointed toward a withdrawal of troops in the near future, he didn’t argue for that — it simply seemed too unpalatable. Officials were not ready to stomach the Taliban retaking the country.

Instead, Biden proposed a smaller surge of 20,000 troops rather than 40,000, with a mission of “counterterrorism” as opposed to counterinsurgency. (Think targeting terrorists rather than nation-building.) The military fired back that that would be insufficient. Obama ended up agreeing to send 30,000 troops and satisfy most of the military’s demands, in part because he did not want to “break with” then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Woodward writes.

After a few years with the heavily expanded troop presence that, as Biden predicted, did not result in Afghanistan becoming a functioning government or in security forces capable of defeating the Taliban, Obama began a troop drawdown in his second term. Since then, US policy has essentially been to kick the can down the road.

In 2015, then-Vox staffer Max Fisher wrote, “The war is already lost, and has been for years,” adding that the only remaining mission was “to temporarily stave off Afghanistan’s inevitable collapse, a few months at a time.”

Former President Donald Trump continued that can-kicking until 2020, when he reached a deal with the Taliban to end the war. It then fell on Biden to decide whether to stick with that arrangement. He did so — rejecting advice from his generals — and a Taliban takeover has now occurred. But his decision was no doubt grounded in the fact that he’s had these debates before.”

‘This Is Actually Happening’

“The latest domino to fall to the Taliban was the northern commercial hub of Mazar-e-Sharif. It was becoming clear that Kabul was next. Seasoned military officers expressed disbelief that the Afghan forces appeared ready to give up their capital city without a fight.

“Email was blowing up left and right [with people saying] ‘Wow, this is actually happening right now,’” a defense official said. “This thing just fell apart over the weekend.”

Pentagon officials were realizing far too late that the Taliban had waged an effective influence campaign in addition to the physical one, taking advantage of tribal dynamics to build ties with village elders and others who played key roles in the group’s mostly bloodless march across the country.

At the same time, the U.S. military had fewer than 2,500 troops left — not enough to understand just how fast the Afghan national army’s morale and cohesion was crumbling.”

“Biden’s cabinet members and their deputies had held some three-dozen “scenario planning” meetings following the president’s April announcement that U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11.

They covered everything from how to secure the U.S. Embassy and handle Afghan refugees to how to best position the U.S. military in the region in case things spun out of control. Many more sessions were held at the Pentagon, U.S. Central Command in Tampa, the State Department, and other agencies.

But it still wasn’t enough to prepare for the utter collapse, in a matter of days, of America’s two-decade, $2 trillion effort designed to prop up the Afghan government. Biden had insisted the Afghan military would fight; it largely hadn’t. Blinken had scoffed at the notion that Kabul would fall over a weekend; and yet it did. The “Saigon moment” Biden feared had arrived.”