The Pentagon has caved in and taken responsibility for the drone strike that killed 10 innocent civilians, including Zemari Ahmadi who was a 14 year-long employee of the Nutrition and Education NGO. Most of his family, including children, were killed in the airstrike as they gathered around his Toyota Corolla when he returned home from work.
But the Pentagon admission lacks credible details on why the Hellfire missile killed the wrong people in the wrong place.
Prior to the admission on Friday, September 17, the White House and Pentagon had been insisting that those killed belonged to ISIS-K and therefore they killed the target they were after. We now know that those claims were false and were part of an effort to cover up what really happened.
The drone that was used in the attack was an MQ-9 Reaper equipped with sophisticated cameras, radars and other equipment. The drone most likely spent hours over Kabul trying to track alleged ISIS-K threats the Reaper has an endurance (fully loaded) of 14 hours.
One of the most problematic aspects of the lethal strike is that the drone had been following a white car, allegedly Ahmadi’s Toyota, for many hours. It is a problem because a different white Toyota, perhaps operated by ISIS-K personnel, was also moving around during this period.
Could they have become mixed up? There is a possibility that happened, although only a complete investigation would reveal the truth.
More concerning are three pointss. The first is that the drone operators, according to Even Hill of the New York Times, identified a building they claimed was an ISIS-K operations center. In fact, it was the well known location of the Nutrition and Education NGO.
The second is that security camera footage, which is inferior to the powerful cameras on the Reaper drone, clearly shows that the alleged “ISIS-K” explosives were never properly identified and were, in fact, water containers that the operators saw being taken into Mr Ahmadi’s home.
The third concern is why a drone would launch a missile at a target in a densely populated neighborhood where collateral damage was a certainty.
The Pentagon also claimed there was a secondary explosion when the “bomb” in the car exploded after the car was hit. There is no evidence at all to support this claim but the Pentagon has yet to state the claim was false. Every examination of the scene makes clear there was only one explosion caused by the Hellfire missile.
Even worse than these three unexplained errors and false claims, the worst error of all was that the drone strike happened when Ahmadi’s children surrounded the car.
There are two possibilities why this happened. The first is that the operators never saw the children and possibly fired before the children ran out to greet their father. The second is that the operators actually did see the children, but by that time the Hellfire missile had already been launched.
Hellfire is a fire and forget weapon. That is, once a target is designated and the Hellfire missile launched, it flies to the target autonomously. It takes a Hellfire missile as long as 30 seconds from launch to target impact. In other words, for 30 seconds it is outside of any human control.
This problem bothered Israeli operators. When Obama cut off Hellfire deliveries to Israel (he didn’t like the fact they were killing Hamas terrorists with them), Israel adapted its home-grown Spike missile for helicopters (and later for drones). Spike has one feature not found on Hellfire. The operator controls it after launch and can change the course of the missile (aim at a different target or no target at all) or destroy it in flight.
Israel has gone to extreme efforts to try and minimize civilian casualties in its conflict with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.
Hellfire isn’t the first US missile to take out a target and unexpectedly kill civilians. On the 20th day of Operation Allied Force in Serbia in 1999, the US attacked a rail bridge over the Grdelica ravine, southeast of Belgrade. Two missiles were fired at the bridge that appeared unoccupied.
However, after the second missile was fired a civilian train was crossing the bridge and it was hit. Ten people died and many others were hurt as a result of the strike. The missile most likely was a TV-guided Maverick which, once launched, takes some minutes before it hits its target.
In May 1999 a NATO missile, again probably a Maverick, blew a civilian bus in half on a bridge in Luzane, Kosovo, killing 24 people. NATO said that “Unfortunately, “after weapon release a bus crossed the bridge.” A number of ethnic Albanian school children died in the blast.
Conventional gravity bombs, of course, once launched are not controlled, making target identification and verification important. Guided bombs, however, could be designed to change target or detonate if inadvertently released against a wrong target, but unfortunately, this isn’t a common practice.
While the Pentagon now is willing to admit it made an error, it has yet to explain how the Afghanistan attack happened. In particular, it has not told us why a civilian neighborhood was targeted, when – if the white Toyota Corolla really had a bomb in it – the Reaper operators had hours to destroy it before it wound up at the home of the driver.
Had that been done, the family members, especially the children, would not have died.
It is important to know who made the decision to fire the missile, what evidence they had in front of them, and who in the Pentagon authorized the strike.
From a distance, there is reason to think this was a rush job and the drone operators were under strong political pressure to kill something. Unfortunately, they did just that.
As it now stands, no one knows who is responsible and the Pentagon’s revelation fails to answer key questions, including why they misrepresented the target of the strike in the first place.
Congress should demand a formal full inquiry. The public has a right to know what went wrong and why.