U.S. military officials said Sunday that they had launched a drone strike destroying a car full of explosives and killing ISIS-K suicide bombers headed toward the international airport in Kabul. Also on Sunday, a family living in Khwaja Burgha, a neighborhood west of Kabul, said a drone missile struck the car of Ezmari Ahmadi, a civilian working with a food charity, in his driveway, killing him, two other adults, and seven children.
One of the dead, The New York Times reports, was a contractor who assisted the U.S. military during the war and came to Kabul in the hopes of being evacuated from the country.
Were there two drone strikes? Was U.S Central Command spokesman Bill Urban mistaken when he declared his confidence that the U.S. had "successfully hit the target" and that "significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material"? Was the family mistaken about the origin of the explosive that killed Ahmadi and the children? The Los Angeles Times was able to send two journalists to see the wreckage, where they determined that the blast was consistent with a missile strike of some sort but could not conclude more than that.
Urban has now put out a statement that the Pentagon is now investigating these reports of civilians killed, neither confirming nor denying that a U.S. strike might be responsible. "We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of life," he said.
We don't have answers as yet, and it's not clear when, or if, we'll get them. But it says a lot about the many problems of America's war in Afghanistan—and in other countries—that we cannot automatically determine whether Ahmadi was struck by one our drones or by the other side.
Over the past 20 years, the U.S. has launched more than 13,000 drone strikes in Afghanistan. We don't really know for certain how many people have been killed, let alone how many of those people were civilians and not terrorists. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism tracked the drone war in Afghanistan up until February 2020. It calculates that between 4,000 and 10,000 deaths in Afghanistan were from drone strikes. Of those, it says, between 300 and 900 were civilians and somewhere between 66 and 184 were children.
These wide variances in these estimates reflect the lack of transparency and reliable data. It wasn't until the last couple of years of President Barack Obama's administration that the Pentagon even provided data about drone strikes. And then President Donald Trump's administration ended that practice.
Even when the U.S. government did provide data about drone strikes, the information was not trustworthy. Whistleblower Daniel Hale revealed that it was the practice of the United States to declare anybody killed by a drone strike to be a suspected militant or enemy until proven otherwise. And it was unfortunately very easy for these strikes to go wrong. Hale himself detailed a strike he was involved with that failed to kill the target, an Afghan man suspected of making car bombs, and instead killed the man's young daughter.
A lot of potential variables can lead to civilian deaths. In Hale's story, the targeters were not aware when they tracked the man as he was driving that his wife and two daughters were in the vehicle with him.
Hale wrote this story to a federal judge as he was throwing himself on the mercy of the court. He was sentenced to 45 months in prison, not for revealing secrets to our enemies, who are most certainly aware at this point of the drone strikes and how they work, but for revealing them to the American public.
Let's be clear: The reason yesterday's drone strike is getting major play right now is because of the ongoing evacuation. The drone strikes have been going on for decades like this, often killing civilians, and barely getting any attention in the United States.
Pulling out of Afghanistan should include ending the drone campaign as well. But even repealing the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force won't likely require the military to pull out the drones. And that's unfortunate, because—outside of this window during the withdrawal—most Americans just don't seem to care when drone strikes kill innocents. In 2012, a former director of national intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair, pointed out the political advantages of relying on drone strikes: "Low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries."