Justice denied for the victims of Afghanistan’s Mai Lai massacre

The US military killed civilians, lied about it, was caught and still exonerated itself.        

Aimal, brother of Zemari Ahmadi, stands next to the wreckage of a vehicle hit by a US drone attack in Kabul on September 18, 2021 [File: AFP/Hoshang Hashimi]

“Surprise: Top US soldier clears US soldiers of murder”

That should have been the headline attached to any story written about the “findings” of a recent “probe” into the massacre of an Afghan family, including seven children, obliterated by a US “Hellfire” missile in late August.

Of course, not one editor – as far as I can gather – opted to tell that simple, blunt truth. Instead, most trotted out the usual pallet of euphemisms in effect to absolve US soldiers of the murders of an Afghan humanitarian worker, Zemari Ahmadi, three of his children, Zamir, 20, Faisal, 16, and Farzad, 13, as well as his cousin, Ahmad, 30, and three of Ahmadi’s nephews, Arwin, seven, Benyamin, six, and Hayat, two and two three-year-old girls, Malika and Somaya.

So, editors wrote lots of headlines like this one to summarise the predictable “conclusions” of a report authored by US Air Force Lieutenant General Sami Said: “Watchdog Finds No Misconduct in Mistaken Afghan Airstrike.”

The Pentagon could not have penned a more agreeable precis of Lieutenant General Said’s “investigation” into the summary execution of Ahmadi and his family.

The Pentagon is, no doubt, delighted. But it is important and instructive to de-construct – for the record – this exculpatory, Pentagon-pleasing header to reveal just how wrong and indecent it is.

First, Lieutenant General Said would not have given the murders of Ahmadi and his kin a nanosecond of attention had the Pentagon been able to continue to deceive the world about what happened in the courtyard of Ahmadi’s home on August 29.

Remember, some of the most powerful soldiers in the US “chain of command” instantly trumpeted the ambush as swift, expert and righteous retaliation for a terrorist bombing on the perimeter of chaotic Kabul airport that maimed and killed dozens of US soldiers and Afghans trying to flee.

The Pentagon assured us that two “high-profile” terrorists had been killed before they could maim and kill others and that the carefully planned drone strike avoided, crucially, causing any civilian casualties.

Quoting an allegedly in-the-know Department of Defense official, US news media reported that the principal target “was a known entity” believed to be “associated with potential future attacks at the airport” and the US had located him and “had sufficient eyes on and sufficient knowledge” to assassinate him.

Every word was a lie.

Still, the Pentagon kept repeating its lies with the ease of a metronome for days, even as Afghans insisted that a large, extended family, not terrorists, had been disembowelled and incinerated. Few believed them because, unlike the “well-placed” Pentagon sources, Afghans could not, it appears, be trusted.

It was only a week after the New York Times published a story casting doubt on the official, lie-littered version of events that the US military grudgingly admitted it had slaughtered a family, not terrorists.

Turns out, America’s righteous retaliation was Mai Lai with a drone.

In countless dispatches examining his “report” – that would never have been written if not for the digging of a couple of sceptical reporters – Lieutenant General Said is described as an “independent watchdog”.

This made me – and perhaps you – laugh.

While I am sure that Lieutenant General Said is a fine officer, I am equally sure that he did not become a lieutenant general by bucking his superiors or causing the Pentagon – his employer – any unwelcome grief.

The one-page summary of his “classified” report – filled with perverse evasions and bureaucratic double-speak – reflects the fact that Lieutenant General Said’s loyalty is to the US military he has long served, and not the truth.

Curiously, Lieutenant General Said chose not to address – in a credible way – how and why top-tier US soldiers and officials spent weeks lying about who the sprawling nexus of America’s military and intelligence agencies conspired to kill in August.

He left that fatal negligence and deceit untouched.

And, shock of shocks, Lieutenant General Said arrived at precisely the same verdict that senior US officials have parroted for months and only after their litany of lies were exposed: the dismemberment and deaths of 10 Afghans was a well-meaning, but tragic “mistake” made by soldiers who had a “genuine belief” that more US soldiers were soon going to perish.

“Execution errors combined with confirmation bias and communication breakdowns led to regrettable civilian casualties,” Lieutenant General Said wrote.

He added – and I am paraphrasing here to spare you Lieutenant General Said’s thicket of bureaucratic double-speak: Hey, the US military was on understandable edge and believed that another assault was imminent. Every patriotic soldier involved in this cascading string of lethal errors deserves a break, alright?

Ahmadi was tracked for hours as he made his daily rounds to pick up and deliver water and food to poor, needy Afghans. Yet, somehow, not once did the technical wizardry that informs the beehive of analysts who populate the US intelligence infrastructure discern that Ahmadi was doing good, not up to no good.

Minutes before the US military fired on Ahmadi and his kids, surveillance video reportedly showed a child near where the missile struck.

Lieutenant General Said’s explanation for this appalling “error” is as wanting as it is absurd. “The physical evidence of a child was apparent at the 2-minute point,” he said at a news briefing. “But it is 100 percent not obvious; you have to be looking for it.”

Well, sir, was that not the job of the US soldier or soldiers who were watching Ahmadi come and go that day: To look closely. To watch closely. To see and then to warn or call off the strike to prevent civilians from being annihilated.

Fuelled by anger and the urge to exact what they were convinced was a necessary and commiserate measure of revenge, it is my “genuine belief” that US soldiers did look, did see, but did not care who they murdered, as long as Afghans died to avenge quickly the murders of their brothers and sisters in arms.

Lieutenant General Said and his allies inside and outside the Pentagon will dismiss anyone who dares suggest that Ahmadi and his family were not killed by mistake with the same certainty that once heralded the killings as a just, eye-for-an-eye response to terror.

Lieutenant General Said and his cocksure confederates must answer this question: How do they explain that from 2015 to 2019, the US government made – by conservative accounts – so-called “condolence payments” totalling more than $2m to 455 Afghan families?

If they truly buy the, by now, perfunctory claim that Ahmadi and his family were killed by “mistake”, please also explain how the US military kept making “mistake” after “mistake” after “mistake” that resulted in the deaths of Afghan women, children and men again and again and again and, apparently, after each “mistake” failed to make sure not to make any more “mistakes”?

On October 22, 2020, a US air strike targeting a religious school was reported to have killed 12 children and wounded 14 civilians. Were the deaths of those 12 children a “mistake”, too?

Four days later, a US air strike on the Taliban killed three children and a Taliban commander. Were the deaths of those three children a “mistake”, too?

Like the other, long train of instances where US soldiers killed Afghan children, women, and men, we are expected to accept, without question, Lieutenant General Said’s finding that not a single US soldier violated any laws, including the rules of war, in the destruction of Ahmadi and his family.

We are expected to accept, without question, the word of this devoted member of the same US military that told lie after lie after lie day after day after day about who it had, in fact, destroyed as Ahmadi arrived home by car with precious jugs of water in tow, to be greeted by a gaggle of happy and excited children.

We are expected to accept, without question, that the US military told all their lies in good, if misguided, faith.

Finally, we are expected to accept, without question, once again, that US soldiers are innocent of murdering innocents.

Zemari Ahmadi, Zamir, Faisal, Farzad, Ahmad, Arwin, Benyamin, Hayat, Malika and Somaya deserve justice. But you, I and their families know that they will never get it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.