One of the things we were all told last month during the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan was that we didn’t need to be worried that leaving would compromise our counterterrorism efforts in the region. The Biden administration claimed we would maintain an “over the horizon” strategy to identify and strike threats from al Qaeda and ISIS. But Americans may have less confidence in our ability to deal with threats remotely after reading this NY Times story about the final drone strike of the Afghanistan conflict.
Three days after an ISIS-K suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Kabul airport, killing Afghans and US service members, a US drone tracked a white Toyota Corolla for 8 hours as it moved around the area north and west of the airport. Deciding the car was a threat, approval was given for the drone to fire a hellfire missile which destroyed the car. At the time the military had no idea who the driver was, but the Times has since identified him as an engineer who had long worked for a US aid group based in California:
Military officials said they did not know the identity of the car’s driver when the drone fired, but deemed him suspicious because of how they interpreted his activities that day, saying that he possibly visited an ISIS safe house and, at one point, loaded what they thought could be explosives into the car.
Times reporting has identified the driver as Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group. The evidence, including extensive interviews with family members, co-workers and witnesses, suggests that his travels that day actually involved transporting colleagues to and from work. And an analysis of video feeds showed that what the military may have seen was Mr. Ahmadi and a colleague loading canisters of water into his trunk to bring home to his family…
Mr. Ahmadi, 43, had worked since 2006 as an electrical engineer for Nutrition and Education International, a California-based aid and lobbying group. The morning of the strike, Mr. Ahmadi’s boss called from the office at around 8:45 a.m., and asked him to pick up his laptop…
Throughout the day, an MQ-9 Reaper drone continued to track Mr. Ahmadi’s vehicle as it drove around Kabul, and U.S. officials claimed they intercepted communications between the sedan and the alleged ISIS safe house, instructing it to make several stops.
But the people who rode with Mr. Ahmadi that day said that what the military interpreted as a series of suspicious moves was simply a normal day at work.
There’s surveillance video from the aid group’s office showing Ahmadi with a hose filling the containers that afternoon and putting them into his trunk. Why? Because there was a water shortage in his neighborhood. Once the government collapsed, water deliveries had stopped. As for the alleged communications with the sedan, the Times simply points out that all of Ahmadi’s stops that day were either to the NEI office or to the homes of co-workers Ahmadi was either picking up or dropping off. When the missile struck, the car was being parked in the courtyard of his home, not moving toward the airport. There’s a more detailed breakdown of all of Ahmadi’s movements that day in the video below.
The Pentagon has claimed there were large secondary explosions that indicated the presence of a bomb or bombs. However, a Times reporter visited the scene and gathered photos which were sent to analysts. The analysts said it appeared there had only been one explosion, the one caused by the missile, followed by a fire. They saw no signs of secondary explosions. The Times reported earlier that the Pentagon’s confidence in its assessment of secondary explosions wasn’t very high in the first place: “So far, there is no ironclad proof that explosives were in the car. The preliminary analysis says it was ‘possible to probable’ that was so, according to officials who have been briefed on the assessment.”
Presumably, the US drone would have seen and recorded any secondary explosions as it circled the area after the strike. In other words, there should be visual proof of those explosions which the Pentagon could provide.
I don’t think the Times‘ story absolutely proves this strike was a mistake but it certainly raises enough legitimate questions that the generals who vouched for it ought to be asked to explain it. If the drone strike did kill an innocent engineer and seven children, that’s obviously not a small mistake. Like the rest of the withdrawal, somebody ought to answer for it.
A failure like this also raises questions about just how effective our “over the horizon” counterterrorism efforts in the region are likely to be going forward.