Zemarai Ahmadi, 40, and his brother-in-law, Naser Nejrabi, 25, fit the perfect profile of Afghans at risk for their prominent role in reconstruction of their country in the past two decades. Zemarai worked for a California-based nutrition charity while Nasser served with the US forces in Herat before enrolling in the Afghan National Army. Their close relative Ahmad Nasser also fit the bill as a former interpreter for US forces.
But, even though they had applied for Special Immigration Visas, they were not to be among the tens of thousands of at-risk Afghans who were evacuated out of Afghanistan in the last few weeks. Instead, they met their death last Thursday in a drone strike that killed them along with seven related children, two of whom were under two years old. In something of a sick irony, Afghans deemed at-risk from Taliban due to their associations with US ended up being killed in an airstrike — by the United States. The family were collateral damage in a strike aimed at the terror group ISIS-K.
On August 14, just a few weeks before the attack, Ahmad Naser’s American supervisor, Timothy Williams, had wrote in support of his SIV application, testifying that he was in “grave danger” due to his “commitment to American and NATO forces” and that he did not pose “any threat to the safety or security of the United States and its citizens.” Little did he know that it was the forces of the United States that posted a threat to Nasser’s lives and that of his family.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been primarily discussed as a tragic story of betrayal of allies left behind. This rings true for millions of Afghans, especially Afghan women, who indeed feel betrayed. Within days of Taliban’s rise to power, their hard-won achievements of the last two decades, in fields such as education, entertainment and sports are already threatened. But this should not let us lose sight of the very real costs of US’s ongoing military operations in Afghanistan.
The fact that a strike meant to target a terror group has instead killed seven children and three US-linked adults has attracted international headlines. The fact that it happened in the capital city of Kabul and following a brutal ISIS-K strike that killed 13 American soldiers and dozens of Afghan civilians has focused more attention on it.
But those who’ve followed the war in Afghanistan know that this is nothing new. Of the more than 14,000 drone strikes that the United States has conducted during its 20-years-long War on Terror, more than 13,000 took place in Afghanistan. While they’ve successfully killed thousands of militants, they’ve also killed hundreds of civilians, including anything between 66 to 184 children.
Speaking on the Thursday incident, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the strike targeted “what we believed to be a very real, a very specific and a very imminent threat.”
“Make no mistake,” he added.” no military on the face of the Earth works harder to avoid civilian casualties than the United States’ military, and nobody wants to see innocent life taken.”
True as this may be, drone strikes, their dubious legality and dozens of civilians and children they’ve killed will haunt the decision-makers and practitioners of the War on Terror era in the United States and beyond. How many people will flock to Taliban and other anti-Western forces every time a drone strike massacres an innocent family?
I am not, and will never be, a pacifist. The United States, along with the international community, was right to take the fight to Taliban after they had harbored perpetrators of the brutal September 11 attacks. It was right to target ISIS and help dismantle it. The anti-Taliban resistance in the Panjshir valley, led by Ahmad Massoud and Afghanistan’s acting president, Amrullah Saleh, is right to fight. They deserve international support.
But as the United States goes through an intensive reevaluation of its foreign policy and warfare priorities, it should ask deep questions about its practice of drone strikes and all the innocent lives it has taken. If all the focus is on hurting the capacities of terror groups, without changing the conditions such as state failure that allows them to breed, terrorism will never be “defeated.”
A war fought from skies is an unfortunately apt allegory for how uncommitted the United States has been to Afghan reconstruction; a disastrous course that started when the Bush administration decided that it wanted to shift its focus on Iraq. As hyper-partisan debates in DC are to inevitably fill the air in the coming months, balance and honest reappraisal of the last 20 years will be key. In this, one has to never forget the face of real victims of war; those like Sumaya and Aya, two Afghan girls short of two years, who were killed last week in one of the last operations of the longest American war in history.