How Far is America from Preventing Civilian Deaths Abroad? 

Growing up, we have all seen the extent of the United States Army’s power. As an international student whose country is a close ally of the U.S. and NATO, and shares many of the same views regarding democracy and the role of advanced militaries in the global stage, I have constantly been reminded of that. What I’m coming to terms with now — as the war in Afghanistan comes to an end — is the inner acknowledgment that I was given a false image of legitimacy as a tool of both peace and destruction. Through the findings of a New York Times investigation on a recent U.S. strike in Kabul, I will try to challenge your own vision as well. 

In the afternoon of Aug. 29, 2021, Zemari Ahmadi (43), a local aid for California-based NGO Nutrition and Education International (N.E.I.), became the target of a U.S. 20-pound warhead, which killed him and ten members of his family, including seven children, despite the U.S. military acknowledging just three civilian deaths. Both Major General William Taylor and General Mark Milley called it a “righteous strike” and defended the work of their intelligence. While the evidence seemed at first to point toward that direction, the findings of the aforementioned investigation show enormous gaps in what became one of the last American military actions in Afghanistan. In particular, what military officials referred to as the tangible proof necessary to prevent a highly probable terrorist attack on U.S. troops and civilians is difficult to identify, as it is simply too vague to corroborate. 

Let’s start from the very beginning. The drone strike itself was the result of less than a day of sporadic observation by a drone operator who had absolutely no previous knowledge of the target. Surveillance, in fact, only began when a white sedan was seen leaving what U.S. officials identified as a possible ISIS safe house. While this is the episode that triggered surveillance, it is not clear which one of the many stops Ahmadi made that day on his way to work, at N.E.I.’s office building, was the one depicted in military records. Throughout the day, Ahmadi’s movements were checked and his activities described as suspicious, despite such “suspicious activity” being described by Ahmadi’s colleagues as routine. He was known for giving rides to his peers, and while U.S. officials observed Ahmadi and unidentified individuals loading large containers on the white sedan possible explosive material surveillance footage and interviews obtained by the NYT strongly suggest that Ahmadi was transporting water tanks from his office to his house as his neighborhood was experiencing a water shortage and N.E.I. laptops. 

It was at 4:30 p.m., as Ahmadi parked his car into his 24 ft. x 24 ft. courtyard, that the drone operator deemed the area free of women, children and noncombatants and was allowed to strike. U.S. officials justified the killing of noncombatants as caused by a secondary explosion which they also used to highlight the presence of explosives in the car. However, multiple weapon experts declared that there was almost no visible proof that a secondary explosion had taken place as the surrounding environment was too preserved to have experienced an additional blast. 

Little to nothing was done to secure the absence of civilians in the area of the strike, nor to confirm the presence of explosives, nor to limit the damages of the explosion on such a dense neighborhood. And while the Department of Defense has started its own investigation, the Times has depicted once again the lack of coordination and precision that the U.S. Army is known for when acting in foreign territories and how far we collectively are from preventing and acknowledging civilian deaths abroad. One question remains unanswered: will this ever change? 

According to Air Wars News, a British NGO monitoring civilian harm from AirPower, over 22,000 civilians have been killed by U.S. airstrikes since the tragedy of 9/11.