On August 29, a Hellfire missile hit a target that General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured us was a “righteous strike” against the bombmaker responsible for the explosion at Kabul International airport that killed 60 Afghans and 13 American military personnel.
The New York Times and the Washington Post tell us that was not the case. They have identified the driver of the targeted white car as Zemari Ahmadi, a worker for the American aid group, Nutrition and Education International. Nine people besides Ahmadi, seven of them children, were killed in the strike. The fact that the two accounts were prepared independently, with different emphasis, suggests that the media accounts are more accurate than what the military has told us.
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.
It appears that what the military thought was an ISIS safe house was the house of Ahmadi’s boss. The “explosives” loaded into the car were containers of water, because water had stopped running at Ahmadi’s house when Kabul fell. The second explosion that US military attributed to those explosives was probably the car’s gas tank.
Photos of the destruction show very precise targeting on the driver of the car. But of course 22 pounds of explosive do more damage than that.
This is one more horrifying story of a drone strike gone wrong. The military targeters must make decisions quickly, on the basis of video and other evidence. And they get it wrong – we don’t know how often. Wedding parties and other innocent people have been killed by these strikes. The targeters sit at video consoles, far from the explosions, far from context.
Media and nongovernmental organizations now can check up on the military’s accounts of these strikes. Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, who provided physics support for the Washington Post team, is at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, which has been doing open-source intelligence for a decade or more. Bellingcat, based in the UK, identified the poisoners of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Other organizations comb satellite photos and other information to understand international events.
The military and other governmental organizations are not accustomed to having their work checked in this way, but they will need to learn to live with it. A reasonable strategy would be to make more information available and to highlight their uncertainties. Before that, they might learn from the open-source organizations and vet their information more carefully. It was not hard for media to find that the “ISIS safe house” in fact belonged to a worker for an aid organization. Now they should reconsider the source of that information.
In this case, an explanation and apology are due. But so far, the military are trying to figure out how to handle this.
We need a congressional investigation into how often these strikes go wrong. And then we need a reconsideration of whether they do more harm than good by killing innocent people.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner