Newly declassified drone video shows the tense moments before and after a controversial US military strike in Kabul last August that killed 10 civilians as American forces withdrew from Afghanistan.
The clips, obtained by TheNew York Times as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against US Central Command, show two angles on the attack captured by MQ-9 Reaper drones.
The footage shows grainy images of figures walking in and out of frame, before a missile incinerates a Toyota sedan parked in a dense residential neighbourhood.
Officials believed they were tracking an ISIS-K terrorist cell, which was thought to be planning a bomb attack on the Kabul airport.
Three days before the 29 August strike, a suicide bomber killed more than 180 people, including 13 US soldiers, at the airport, where scenes of chaos were playing out daily as the military commenced pulling out of the country.
Intelligence officials believed that a Toyota was going to be used in the ISIS plot, and began surveilling the one ultimately struck in the drone attack, watching as it visited a purported ISIS safe house.
Instead, the drones took out Zemari Ahmadi, an aid worker with Nutrition and Education International, an organisation that worked with refugees and other vulnerable people inside the country.
Facing an outcry inside Afghanistan and beyond after the strike, the military later acknowledged it made intelligence errors as they planned the attack, and disclosed they weren’t aware of the identity of the driver of the car they blew up before pulling the trigger.
“In a dynamic high-threat environment, the commanders on the ground had appropriate authority and had reasonable certainty that the target was valid, but after deeper post-strike analysis, our conclusion is that innocent civilians were killed,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a statement at the time. “This is a horrible tragedy of war and it’s heart-wrenching and we are committed to being fully transparent about this incident.”
Another victim was Ahmad Naser, who came to Kabul to escape the Taliban after having served as a guard at the US military’s Camp Lawton, in Herat. He was applying for a US special immigrant visa to leave the country, given the risk of reprisals against him for aiding the Americans.
US officials also claimed that secondary explosions witnessed after the strike strengthened the case that they had hit a terrorist, though they now believe the blasts were probably from a home gas or propane tank.
The strike, one of the final major military actions in the country as US forces hastily pulled out of Afghanistan, was hardly unique. The US has been roundly criticised for using so-called “signature strikes”, where individuals are targeted not because their identities and intentions are known based on concrete intelligence, but because they fit a pattern of likely threat to US forces.
Such strikes, as well as the US war effort in the Middle East at large since 9/11, has killed more than 363,000 civilians since 2001, according to a recent Independent analysis of the last 20 years of the “war on terror”.
“It’s a manifestation of the project of elite impunity that has always run through this entire enterprise and a manifestation of American exceptionalism, whereby the people that America kills are not somehow as real human beings as Americans are,” Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter Spencer Ackerman, author of Reign of Terror, a recent history of the war on terror, told The Independent after the strike.
In November, the Air Force inspector general released a report on the strike, finding no violations of law. None of those involved in the strike will be punished, according to the military.
Rights groups called on the military to follow through on its promises to resettle the families of victims of the attack.
“The urgent need right now is for the US government to follow through on its promises of evacuation because every day our clients remain in Afghanistan is a day they are in imminent danger,” Hina Shamsi, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, told the Times.
Drones strikes are likely to become an even more central part of US military strategy as group troops have withdrawn from battlefields like Afghanistan. The Biden administration is working on a long-delayed drone policy governing use of force.