Zemari Ahmadi's damaged house after a US drone strike killed him and nine family members in Kabul. Photo: AFP / Haroon Sabawoon

On August 29, in the final days of its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan, the United States launched a drone strike, firing a 20-pound (9-kilogram) Hellfire missile at an aid worker named Zemari Ahmadi as he parked his car outside his home in a residential neighborhood of Kabul.

The strike killed Ahmadi and nine members of his family, including seven children, five of whom were younger than 10. The children had come outside to meet Ahmadi as he returned home from his job at an American non-governmental organization where he distributed food to Afghans displaced by the war. He and his family had applied for refugee resettlement in the United States.

When a surviving member of Ahmadi’s family complained publicly about the errant strike, the Pentagon did what it has been doing for 20 years in Afghanistan. It lied.

According to The New York Times, the Pentagon claimed that Ahmadi was a facilitator for Islamic State, and that his car was packed with explosives, posing an imminent threat to US troops guarding the evacuation at Kabul Airport. General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command, said the drone strike dealt ISIS-Khorasan a crushing blow. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it a “righteous strike.”

When it was confirmed that children as young as two had died in the strike, the Pentagon suggested that any civilian deaths resulted from the detonation of explosives inside the vehicle that was targeted. The military produced an assessment that the occupants of the vehicle were wearing suicide vests and that the car itself was packed with explosives.

Most US drone strikes take place in remote areas and no follow-up investigation is ever conducted. However, the slaughter of Ahmadi’s family took place 3 kilometers from Kabul Airport, at which American reporters were stationed covering the chaotic evacuation of US troops and allies.

In the days following the deadly drone strike, reporters from The New York Times conducted a thorough investigation, visiting Ahmadi’s home and place of work, viewing video footage from security cameras, and consulting with weapons experts.

This investigation quickly confirmed that every official statement of the Pentagon was false. Ahmadi did not visit an Islamic State safe house on the day of his death; he visited his office. His car was not loaded with explosives; it was loaded with water canisters he was bringing home to his family because there was a water shortage in his neighborhood.

After the publication of the New York Times investigation, the Pentagon conceded that it had made a tragic, but “honest,” mistake when it assassinated Ahmadi and his family by drone. No one has been held accountable for the deadly mistake.

Targeted drone killing is an innovation of the “war on terror.” It facilitates continuous war by making it appear less costly and more humane. Indeed, President Joe Biden has already announced that the US will continue launching drone strikes from afar after its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Similar language was used when Biden announced an end to American support “for offensive operations in the war in Yemen,” while reserving the right to continue killing Yemenis if it believes they are linked to ISIS or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

And of course don’t expect any peace dividend from the end of the Afghan war. In September, the US House of Representatives approved, in bipartisan fashion, $778 billion in military spending for 2022, a $37 billion increase over the 2021 military budget.

More than half the funds American taxpayers have sent to the Pentagon since September 11, 2001 – about $8 trillion – has ended up in the pockets of private corporations such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. These companies then use some of those taxpayer dollars to lobby Congress and the president to keep the wars going and the money flowing into their pockets.

The late US president Dwight Eisenhower warned of the danger that a profit-seeking “military-industrial complex” would produce a state where wars are not fought with an intention of winning them but to ensure that they never end. British author George Orwell articulated these dangers in his classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949) wherein he described continuous war as an opaque, low-intensity conflict whose primary purpose was to siphon off resources and perpetuate itself.

Begun under George W Bush, the drone program was fully embraced and escalated under the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Obama assured Americans that US drones are so “exceptionally surgical and precise,” “narrowly target[ed] … against those who want to kill us” while not putting “innocent men, women and children in danger.”

The claim that drones are humane and effective has always been a lie. But by classifying the program as top-secret and by aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers, the US has been able to hide the truth about drones from most Americans.

Ironically, of course, the people targeted by US drones know the truth about who is being killed. Thus the classification of all information about drones does nothing to protect national security; rather, it protects government officials from any accountability.

I have asked several members of the US Senate about the drone program and have never received a straight answer.

In the autumn of 2009, I attended a fundraiser for Senator Chuck Schumer at a Chicago law firm. The United States had just suffered one of its deadliest months in Afghanistan in which more than 50 Americans were killed. Schumer assured the group that Obama was turning things around with his unmanned killer drone program.

I asked Schumer about civilian deaths and whether the Central Intelligence Agency (which then ran the drone program) had ever studied whether drones killed more terrorists than they created. The senator said he was pretty sure the CIA did reach such a conclusion.

In fact, as WikiLeaks later revealed, the CIA had conducted such a study in July 2009. But that study, called “CIA Best Practices in Counterinsurgency,” reached the opposite conclusion: that the clandestine drone and assassination program was likely to produce counterproductive outcomes, including strengthening the very “extremist groups” it was allegedly designed to destroy, particularly if “non-combatants are killed in the attacks.”

This report was classified as “secret,” meaning it could be read by Senator Schumer, but not by you or me, until 2014, when WikiLeaks released it to the public.

Others have come forward to expose the official lies told about the drone program. In 2014, a former signals intelligence analyst in the US Air Force named Daniel Hale leaked internal documents exposing how, in one five-month period in Afghanistan, 90% of the people killed by US drones were not the intended target.

Hale also disclosed how children in areas targeted by US drones cannot go out and play on clear days because that is when the drones fly. Hale said that drone operators reported having to kill a part of their conscience to keep doing their job.

Hale was prosecuted under the Espionage Act for leaking these documents and has been sentenced to 45 months in prison.

The investigation by The New York Times into the drone assassination of Ahmadi and his family is an important step in bringing some sunlight into the clandestine world of drone warfare. Sadly, most victims of US drones remain anonymous, as the strikes take place in remote areas of faraway countries such as Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Much of the work to reveal the truth about drones still falls on independent investigative journalists and whistleblowers like Hale. They are our best hope to begin holding those responsible accountable and bringing an end to this dangerous lie.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

Leonard C Goodman

Leonard C Goodman is a Chicago criminal defense lawyer and co-owner of the newly independent Chicago-based weekly Reader.