Video Showed Child in Area Minutes Before Kabul Drone Strike – The New York Times

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An investigation of the Aug. 29 airstrike, which mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven children, did not recommend any disciplinary action.
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transcript
“The report confirmed that the strike resulted in the death of 10 Afghan civilians, including three men and seven children. Individuals involved in the strike interviewed during this investigation truly believed at the time that they were targeting an imminent threat to U.S. forces on HKIA. The intended target of the strike, the vehicle, the white Corolla, its contents and occupant, were genuinely assessed at the time to be a threat to U.S. forces. That assessment was primarily driven by interpretation of intelligence and correlating that to observed movement throughout an eight-hour window in which the vehicle was tracked throughout the day before it was ultimately struck. Regrettably, the interpretation of the correlation of the intelligence to what was being perceived at the time, in real time, was inaccurate. In fact, the vehicle, its occupant and contents did not pose any risk to U.S. forces. In addition, the assessment prior to strike at the compound at which the vehicle was struck of the individuals in the area itself was inaccurate. The investigation found no violation of law, including the law of war — it did find execution errors confirmed by, or combined with confirmation bias and communication breakdowns that regrettably led to civilian casualties. The first time we had confirmation of kids was at the 2 minute time frame.” Reporter: “Two minutes before the impact?” “Before the trigger pull. Two independent reviews that I conducted for this investigation, the physical evidence of a child was apparent about the 2 minute point. It is 100 percent not obvious. 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 a presence? Yes, there was.”
Helene Cooper and
WASHINGTON — Surveillance videos showed the presence of at least one child in the area some two minutes before the military launched a drone strike on a site in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August, the Defense Department said on Wednesday.
But the general who conducted the investigation into the U.S. airstrike, which the military has acknowledged mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven children, said the footage showing the presence of a child would have been easy to miss in real time.
The inquiry by the Air Force’s inspector general, Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said, found no violations of law and does not recommend any disciplinary action. The general blamed a series of assumptions, made over the course of eight hours as U.S. officials tracked a white Toyota Corolla through Kabul, for causing what he called “confirmation bias,” leading to the Aug. 29 strike.
“That assessment was primarily driven by interpretation,” the general said on Wednesday during an unclassified briefing on the report to news media at the Pentagon. “Regrettably, the interpretational assessment was inaccurate.”
While General Said acknowledged that the military had video footage showing a child at the site two minutes before the launch, he said that he was unsure whether anyone who was not specifically looking for evidence of a child would have picked up on it.
“Two independent reviews that I conducted, the physical evidence of a child was apparent at the 2-minute point,” he said. “But it is 100 percent not obvious; you have to be looking for it.”
The military makes an effort to avoid civilian casualties. The known presence of a child in a strike zone would most likely have prompted, at a minimum, further consideration of whether a more thorough assessment of the target was warranted.
Planners involved in the strike “had a genuine belief that there was an imminent threat to U.S. forces,” the general said. He acknowledged that was “a mistake” but added that “it’s not negligence.”
General Said insisted that the strike has to be considered in the context of the moment, with American officials at a heightened state of alert after a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport three days earlier killed about 170 civilians and 13 U.S. troops.
The investigation made several recommendations for fixing the process through which strikes are ordered, including putting in new measures to cut down the risk of confirmation bias and reviewing the pre-strike procedures used to assess the presence of civilians.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III ordered the review of the military’s initial inquiry into the drone strike to determine, among other issues, who should be held accountable and “the degree to which strike authorities, procedures and processes need to be altered in the future.”
Almost everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, days and weeks after the drone strike turned out to be false. The explosives the military claimed were loaded in the trunk of a white sedan struck by the drone’s Hellfire missile were probably water bottles. And a secondary explosion in the courtyard in the densely populated Kabul neighborhood where the attack took place was probably a propane or gas tank, officials said.
The driver of the white sedan that was struck by the American drone, Zemari Ahmadi, was employed by Nutrition and Education International, a California-based aid organization.
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of Central Command, said in a news conference in September that the strike was carried out “in the profound belief” that the Islamic State was about to launch another attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Since then, the Pentagon offered unspecified condolence payments to the family of the 10 civilians, including seven children, who were killed in the Aug. 29 drone strike.
The Pentagon has also said it was working with the State Department to help surviving members of the family relocate to the United States.
transcript
[explosion] In one of the final acts of its 20-year war in Afghanistan, the United States fired a missile from a drone at a car in Kabul. It was parked in the courtyard of a home, and the explosion killed 10 people, including 43-year-old Zemari Ahmadi and seven children, according to his family. The Pentagon claimed that Ahmadi was a facilitator for the Islamic State, and that his car was packed with explosives, posing an imminent threat to U.S. troops guarding the evacuation at the Kabul airport. “The procedures were correctly followed, and it was a righteous strike.” What the military apparently didn’t know was that Ahmadi was a longtime aid worker, who colleagues and family members said spent the hours before he died running office errands, and ended his day by pulling up to his house. Soon after, his Toyota was hit with a 20-pound Hellfire missile. What was interpreted as the suspicious moves of a terrorist may have just been an average day in his life. And it’s possible that what the military saw Ahmadi loading into his car were water canisters he was bringing home to his family — not explosives. Using never-before seen security camera footage of Ahmadi, interviews with his family, co-workers and witnesses, we will piece together for the first time his movements in the hours before he was killed. Zemari Ahmadi was an electrical engineer by training. For 14 years, he had worked for the Kabul office of Nutrition and Education International. “NEI established a total of 11 soybean processing plants in Afghanistan.” It’s a California based NGO that fights malnutrition. On most days, he drove one of the company’s white Toyota corollas, taking his colleagues to and from work and distributing the NGO’s food to Afghans displaced by the war. Only three days before Ahmadi was killed, 13 U.S. troops and more than 170 Afghan civilians died in an Islamic State suicide attack at the airport. The military had given lower-level commanders the authority to order airstrikes earlier in the evacuation, and they were bracing for what they feared was another imminent attack. To reconstruct Ahmadi’s movements on Aug. 29, in the hours before he was killed, The Times pieced together the security camera footage from his office, with interviews with more than a dozen of Ahmadi’s colleagues and family members. Ahmadi appears to have left his home around 9 a.m. He then picked up a colleague and his boss’s laptop near his house. It’s around this time that the U.S. military claimed it observed a white sedan leaving an alleged Islamic State safehouse, around five kilometers northwest of the airport. That’s why the U.S. military said they tracked Ahmadi’s Corolla that day. They also said they intercepted communications from the safehouse, instructing the car to make several stops. But every colleague who rode with Ahmadi that day said what the military interpreted as a series of suspicious moves was just a typical day in his life. After Ahmadi picked up another colleague, the three stopped to get breakfast, and at 9:35 a.m., they arrived at the N.G.O.’s office. Later that morning, Ahmadi drove some of his co-workers to a Taliban-occupied police station to get permission for future food distribution at a new displacement camp. At around 2 p.m., Ahmadi and his colleagues returned to the office. The security camera footage we obtained from the office is crucial to understanding what happens next. The camera’s timestamp is off, but we went to the office and verified the time. We also matched an exact scene from the footage with a timestamp satellite image to confirm it was accurate. A 2:35 p.m., Ahmadi pulls out a hose, and then he and a co-worker fill empty containers with water. Earlier that morning, we saw Ahmadi bring these same empty plastic containers to the office. There was a water shortage in his neighborhood, his family said, so he regularly brought water home from the office. At around 3:38 p.m., a colleague moves Ahmadi’s car further into the driveway. A senior U.S. official told us that at roughly the same time, the military saw Ahmadi’s car pull into an unknown compound 8 to 12 kilometers southwest of the airport. That overlaps with the location of the NGO’s office, which we believe is what the military called an unknown compound. With the workday ending, an employee switched off the office generator and the feed from the camera ends. We don’t have footage of the moments that followed. But it’s at this time, the military said that its drone feed showed four men gingerly loading wrapped packages into the car. Officials said they couldn’t tell what was inside them. This footage from earlier in the day shows what the men said they were carrying — their laptops one in a plastic shopping bag. And the only things in the trunk, Ahmadi’s co-workers said, were the water containers. Ahmadi dropped each one of them off, then drove to his home in a dense neighborhood near the airport. He backed into the home’s small courtyard. Children surrounded the car, according to his brother. A U.S. official said the military feared the car would leave again, and go into an even more crowded street or to the airport itself. The drone operators, who hadn’t been watching Ahmadi’s home at all that day, quickly scanned the courtyard and said they saw only one adult male talking to the driver and no children. They decided this was the moment to strike. A U.S. official told us that the strike on Ahmadi’s car was conducted by an MQ-9 Reaper drone that fired a single Hellfire missile with a 20-pound warhead. We found remnants of the missile, which experts said matched a Hellfire at the scene of the attack. In the days after the attack, the Pentagon repeatedly claimed that the missile strike set off other explosions, and that these likely killed the civilians in the courtyard. “Significant secondary explosions from the targeted vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.” “Because there were secondary explosions, there’s a reasonable conclusion to be made that there was explosives in that vehicle.” But a senior military official later told us that it was only possible to probable that explosives in the car caused another blast. We gathered photos and videos of the scene taken by journalists and visited the courtyard multiple times. We shared the evidence with three weapons experts who said the damage was consistent with the impact of a Hellfire missile. They pointed to the small crater beneath Ahmadi’s car and the damage from the metal fragments of the warhead. This plastic melted as a result of a car fire triggered by the missile strike. All three experts also pointed out what was missing: any evidence of the large secondary explosions described by the Pentagon. No collapsed or blown-out walls, including next to the trunk with the alleged explosives. No sign that a second car parked in the courtyard was overturned by a large blast. No destroyed vegetation. All of this matches what eyewitnesses told us, that a single missile exploded and triggered a large fire. There is one final detail visible in the wreckage: containers identical to the ones that Ahmadi and his colleague filled with water and loaded into his trunk before heading home. Even though the military said the drone team watched the car for eight hours that day, a senior official also said they weren’t aware of any water containers. The Pentagon has not provided The Times with evidence of explosives in Ahmadi’s vehicle or shared what they say is the intelligence that linked him to the Islamic State. But the morning after the U.S. killed Ahmadi, the Islamic State did launch rockets at the airport from a residential area Ahmadi had driven through the previous day. And the vehicle they used … … was a white Toyota. The U.S. military has so far acknowledged only three civilian deaths from its strike, and says there is an investigation underway. They have also admitted to knowing nothing about Ahmadi before killing him, leading them to interpret the work of an engineer at a U.S. NGO as that of an Islamic State terrorist. Four days before Ahmadi was killed, his employer had applied for his family to receive refugee resettlement in the United States. At the time of the strike, they were still awaiting approval. Looking to the U.S. for protection, they instead became some of the last victims in America’s longest war. “Hi, I’m Evan, one of the producers on this story. Our latest visual investigation began with word on social media of an explosion near Kabul airport. It turned out that this was a U.S. drone strike, one of the final acts in the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Our goal was to fill in the gaps in the Pentagon’s version of events. We analyzed exclusive security camera footage, and combined it with eyewitness accounts and expert analysis of the strike aftermath. You can see more of our investigations by signing up for our newsletter.”
Congress has authorized the Pentagon to pay up to $3 million a year for payments to compensate for property damage, personal injury or deaths related to the actions of U.S. armed forces, as well as for “hero payments” to the family members of local allied forces, such as Afghan or Iraqi troops fighting Al Qaeda or ISIS.
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. One spokesman told The Times that the group wanted to forget its past, but that there would be some restrictions.
How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.
What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.
What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there. On Aug. 26, deadly explosions outside Afghanistan’s main airport claimed by the Islamic State demonstrated that terrorists remain a threat.
How will this affect future U.S. policy in the region? Washington and the Taliban may spend years pulled between cooperation and conflict. Some of the key issues at hand include: how to cooperate against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K, and whether the U.S. should release $9.4 billion in Afghan government currency reserves that are frozen in the country.
Condolence payments for deaths caused by the American military have varied widely in recent years. In fiscal 2019, for instance, the Pentagon offered 71 such payments — ranging from $131 to $35,000 — in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“This investigation is deeply disappointing and inadequate because we’re left with many of the same questions we started with,” Dr. Steven Kwon, the president of Nutrition and Education International, said in an emailed statement. “I do not understand how the most powerful military in the world could follow Zemari, an aid worker, in a commonly used car for eight hours, and not figure out who he was, and why he was at a U.S. aid organization’s headquarters.”
Critics of the strike pointed to the incongruity of acknowledging the mistake but not finding anyone responsible for any wrongdoing, a point that General Said touched on in his remarks. He said that he had sent the full report to senior military officials.
“The fact that I’ve sent it to the chain of command, that doesn’t mean the chain of command won’t do anything,” he said. “They can read this and say ‘This is sub par performance.’”
Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that Nutrition and Educational International “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.
“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.”
The Pentagon’s initial acknowledgment of the mistaken strike came a week after a New York Times investigation of video evidence challenged assertions by the military that it had struck a vehicle carrying explosives meant for the airport.
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