Kabul drone attack: US advocates decry ‘impunity, secrecy’

Activists call for more oversight after Pentagon decides against punishing army officials for bombing that killed 10.

Kabul drone attack
Afghan residents and family members of the victims gather at the site of deadly US drone attack in Kabul, August 30, 2021 [File: Wakil Kohsar /AFP]

Washington, DC – The United States is sending a “dangerous and misleading message” by failing to hold any US military personnel responsible for a Kabul drone attack that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, human rights advocates have said.

Calls for accountability for the deadly bombing on August 29 grew on Tuesday, a day after US media outlets first reported that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had accepted a recommendation from top commanders not to punish any members of the military.

Rights groups also urged President Joe Biden’s administration to do more to help the survivors of the attack in the Afghan capital to relocate to the US.

The bombing targeted the car of Zemari Ahmadi, who worked for US-based aid organisation Nutrition and Education International (NEI), killing him and nine of his family members.

“I’ve been beseeching the US government to evacuate directly-impacted family members and NEI employees for months because their security situation is so dire,” Steven Kwon, founder and president of NEI, said in a statement.

“When the Pentagon absolves itself of accountability, it sends a dangerous and misleading message that its actions were somehow justified, increasing security risks and making evacuation even more urgent.”

Afghan residents and family members of the victims gather next to a vehicle damaged in the US drone attack in Kabul [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

‘Issues of accountability’

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Monday that Austin accepted the recommendations of two top generals on the Kabul bombing, which did not include “issues of accountability”.

“I do not anticipate there being issues of personal accountability to be had with respect to the August 29 air strike,” Kirby told reporters. The Pentagon did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on Tuesday.

But Kirby’s remarks all but confirmed earlier reporting by the New York Times and other US news outlets, which cited unidentified American military officials as saying that no one would be punished for the attack.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern over the Pentagon’s decision, urging Congress to “urgently exercise its oversight” over the Department of Defense by conducting a review of “20 years of practices that have resulted in the deaths or injury to civilians”.

Sarah Holewinski, the group’s Washington director, called the lack of accountability for civilian casualties a “message of impunity and secrecy” that undermines US credibility in the world, days after President Joe Biden concluded a global “Summit for Democracy”.

“After 20 years of announcements, Congress needs to consider reforms to the military’s justice system and demand answers from the Pentagon about why past reviews of policy and practice have not led to concrete change,” Holewinski said in a statement.

US drone attacks

The US began regularly using drone attacks to target suspected al-Qaeda fighters shortly after 9/11.

But such aerial bombings were not limited to areas where the US military was directly engaged militarily. Raids targeted people in Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Pakistan among other places as the US embarked on a borderless “war on terror“.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan growing unpopular, the Obama administration increasingly relied on drones as part of its national security policy instead of conventional warfare.

“As al-Qaeda had scattered and gone underground, metastasizing into a complex web of affiliates, operatives, sleeper cells, and sympathizers connected by the internet and burner phones, our national security agencies had been challenged to construct new forms of more targeted, nontraditional warfare,” former President Barack Obama wrote in his 2020 memoir, A Promise Land.

The tactic, which makes it difficult to account for civilian casualties, quickly raised concerns from human rights advocates. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that as many as 16,900 civilians, including hundreds of children, have been killed in US drone strikes across several countries since 2004.

This month, a coalition of advocacy groups called on Austin, the secretary of defense, to ensure accountability for US attacks that harm civilians, blasting the Defense Department’s “record of civilian harm over the past 20 years” and its “failure to prioritize civilian protection”.

‘Righteous strike’

Against that backdrop, activists say the Pentagon eventually acknowledged the August 29 US drone attack killed civilians because media reports and investigations had shown that is what happened.

US military leaders initially insisted that the raid targeted ISIL (ISIS) operatives planning an attack on the airport in Kabul, where American troops were conducting a massive evacuation operation. “At this point, we think that the procedures were correctly followed and it was a righteous strike,” Mark Milley, the top US general, told reporters in a briefing on September 1.

By then, several media outlets had reported that the bombing hit an innocent Afghan family. “They were innocent, helpless children,” Aimal Ahmadi, whose nieces and nephews were killed in the attack, told Al Jazeera the day after the bombing.

Kirby said on Monday that the US administration is working with Kwon to “expeditiously” move the surviving Ahmadi family members out of Afghanistan and give them compensation payments. The Pentagon had announced its intention to make “ex gratia” payments for the victims when it acknowledged in September the bombing killed civilians.

But an internal Pentagon review concluded last month that while the bombing was a “regrettable mistake”, it did not rise to the level of misconduct or criminal negligence.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin accepted a recommendation from top commanders not to punish any military personnel for the drone attack, US media outlets reported this week [Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

That review remains classified, but on November 3, US Air Force Inspector General Sami Said, who led the investigation, said he interviewed dozens of people before making his assessment.

“The investigation found no violation of law, including the law of war,” Said told reporters at the time. “It did find execution errors … combined with confirmation bias and communication breakdowns that regrettably led to civilian casualties.”

Larry Lewis, a former Pentagon and State Department adviser on reducing civilian casualties, said the Kabul drone attack was not merely a tragic mistake under unique circumstances but part of a “pattern” of problems that lead to the killing of civilians.

Lewis, who currently works at the Washington, DC-based research institution CNA, said reprimanding individual officials can ensure accountability for the specific bombing and also “promote change”.

“I also think we can’t miss the bigger picture that these officers are operating in a larger system that [has] systemic problems that have never been fixed,” Lewis told Al Jazeera.

‘Arsonists cannot also put out the fire’

The August 29 drone attack came days after a suicide bombing outside the airport in Kabul claimed by Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), killed more than 150 Afghans and 13 US service members.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is representing NEI, voiced disappointment on Tuesday over the outcome of the Pentagon’s investigation.

“NEI and the surviving family members have repeatedly asked for meaningful transparency and accountability for the wrongful killing of their loved ones, and they continue to be disappointed,” Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the ACLU, said in a statement.

“We have implored the Pentagon to evacuate impacted family members and NEI employees who are in peril as a result of the US government’s actions, but have yet to see concrete action.”

Advocates also have decried the US administration’s stated plan to continue using drones against ISKP and other potential threats in Afghanistan.

Arash Azizzada, co-founder of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, an Afghan-American advocacy group, has urged an end to all US drone strikes in Afghanistan. “We have seen that this failed policy harms lives, destroys villages and just allows for more violence to exist in the country,” Azizzada told Al Jazeera in a phone interview in October.

Azizzada also called for an international investigation to be launched into US military conduct in Afghanistan, including the August drone attack. “The United States cannot hold the United States accountable,” Azizzada said.

“Time and time again, we have seen the United States say, ‘We will look into this; we will see if this was done correctly.’ But arsonists cannot also put out the fire in this case.”

Source: Al Jazeera