Investigations Find No Proof of Bombs in Car Targeted by US Drone in Afghanistan

The last known missile launched by the U.S. during its 20-year war in Afghanistan — the August 29 drone attack in a Kabul neighborhood that killed 10 civilians — was described by Gen. Mark Milley 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.

A pair of investigations published Friday, however, revealed that — contrary to the Pentagon’s claims — 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 victims in the vicinity of the sedan destroyed by a missile fired after several hours of surveillance.

The New York Times obtained exclusive security camera footage and interviewed more than a dozen of the driver’s co-workers and family members. The newspaper reported:

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 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.

Ahmadi, who started working for California-based Nutrition and Education International (NEI) in 2006, was one of thousands of Afghans who had applied for U.S. resettlement. On the day he and nine members of his family were killed by the U.S. military, the 43-year-old used his 1996 Toyota Corrola to run work errands, witnesses said.

“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,” the Times noted. The newspaper continued:

After stopping to pick up breakfast, Mr. Ahmadi and his two passengers arrived at NEI’s office, where security camera footage obtained by the Times recorded their arrival at 9:35 a.m. Later that morning Mr. Ahmadi drove some co-workers to a Taliban-occupied police station downtown, where they said they requested permission to distribute food to refugees in a nearby park. Mr. Ahmadi and his three passengers returned to the office around 2 p.m.

As seen on camera footage, Mr. Ahmadi came out a half-hour later with a hose that was streaming water. With the help of a guard, he filled several empty plastic containers. According to his co-workers, water deliveries had stopped in his neighborhood after the collapse of the government and Mr. Ahmadi had been bringing home water from the office.

A couple of hours later, when “Ahmadi pulled into the courtyard of his home — which officials said was different than the alleged ISIS safe house — the tactical commander made the decision to strike his vehicle, launching a Hellfire missile at around 4:50 p.m.,” the Times reported. “Although the target was now inside a densely populated residential area, the drone operator quickly scanned and saw only a single adult male greeting the vehicle, and therefore assessed with ‘reasonable certainty’ that no women, children or noncombatants would be killed.”

The Washington Post, which also examined the U.S. military’s deadly attack, reported that the missile took about 30 seconds to reach Ahmadi’s vehicle. The newspaper added:

In that time, three children approached the car just before it was destroyed, according to a senior U.S. military official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing military investigation. The children were killed, the official said, and families of the victims said another seven people also died in the strike, including the driver and the second man.

According to U.S. Central Command, the strike produced “significant secondary explosions from the vehicle,” which “indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.” “We are confident we successfully hit the target,” said a military spokesperson, who claimed the attack had eliminated “an imminent ISIS-K threat to Hamad Karzai International Airport.”

The Post “provided imagery of the damage caused by the strike and U.S. military assessments of the operation to experts, including a physicist and former bomb technicians, and spoke to the nonprofit that employed the driver targeted in the operation.”

“Taken together,” the newspaper wrote, “their assessments suggest there is no evidence the car contained explosives; two experts said evidence pointed to an ignition of fuel tank vapors as the potential cause of the second blast.”

The Times‘ analysis also “found no evidence of a second, more powerful explosion.”

In response to the new reports, Jason Paladino, an investigative reporter at the Project on Government Oversight, tweeted that “the Pentagon has some serious explaining to do.”

“Consider,” Paladino added, “how many strikes go unexamined by Western media.”

Last week, Airwars, a military watchdog that monitors and seeks to reduce civilian harm in violent conflict zones, released a report 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.

Launched in the wake of a deadly ISIS-K attack on Kabul’s international airport, the August 29 drone strike came just one day before U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan following two decades of devastating war. The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and ensuing 20 years of military occupation caused more than 240,000 deaths, displaced nearly six million Afghans, and cost U.S. taxpayers over $2.3 trillion and counting, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University.

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.

Following the August 29 attack that killed 10 more innocent people, the Council on American-Isamic Relations demanded that the Biden administration immediately impose a “moratorium on drone warfare.”