The killing of Afghan aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and his relatives in Kabul marked a rare case in which the US government took responsibility for civilian deaths caused by a US drone strike and offered compensation, the lawyers said.
The US military admitted last fall it had made a ‘horrific mistake’ when it launched a Hellfire missile on August 29 at Ahmadi’s house, killing him and nine of his relatives – mostly children – under the false belief that he was targeting a member of a terrorist organization, in the final days of the US withdrawal.
Last fall, surviving family members told the Washington Post they were seeking compensation from the Biden administration, as well as help to leave Afghanistan to resettle in another country. . “The Americans can’t bring our loved ones back, but they can get us out of here,” Samim Ahmadi, Zemari Ahmadi’s son-in-law, said last September.
The Pentagon said at the time that it would take no disciplinary action against US officials involved in the strike order, but that it had made a “commitment to the families, including offering condolence payments as gracious”.
Former Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Department of Defense is working with the State Department to support family members “interested in relocating to the United States.”
It took nearly a year to evacuate most of the family from Afghanistan, and 32 of the 144 loved ones the U.S. government has pledged to help are still there, said Brett Max Kaufman, senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the family; and Nutrition and Education International, the California-based nonprofit that employed Ahmadi.
“We appreciate the tremendous commitment the United States has made to our customers, and we are grateful for the many efforts of dedicated individuals within the Departments of Defense and State to bring them to safety,” he said. Kaufman said Monday. “But at the end of the day the government hasn’t done enough and many of our customers remain at risk.”
U.S. officials said the process of moving Afghan family members to safety required complex international diplomacy, complicated by the precarious and sensitive nature of getting people out of a country where the U.S. has no no diplomatic presence and is now under the control of America’s old enemy, the Taliban.
The United States has used a military base in Qatar, a Middle Eastern ally, as a transit point of screening and processing for Afghans whom the US government has been able to move sporadically in the year since the withdrawal . The US government was able to evacuate some family members to Qatar, and Kaufman said 11 are now in the United States.
But that was not an option for most of Ahmadi’s relatives because they did not have and could not obtain passports, said US officials and others familiar with the efforts.
“We couldn’t put them on a plane because the Taliban don’t allow people to leave without a passport, and the Qataris don’t allow people to come in without a passport,” a senior State Department official said. who spoke on condition of anonymity. due to the sensitivity of the ongoing efforts.
Officials concluded that the only viable way to get most of the family members out would be to move them overland to Pakistan. Then they would have to find another country that would accept them, while the US government screened them and processed them for permanent resettlement.
Pentagon releases drone video of strike that killed Afghan civilians
The Post spoke to seven people with knowledge of the operation, including government officials and family members, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the process. While most family members have since left Afghanistan, some family members are still looking for a way out.
In February, the top State Department official visited Albania, a European ally that has taken in thousands of Afghans who fled during and after the withdrawal. The official asked the Albanian government if it would allow the United States to bring an additional “large group” of Afghans without passports to the small Balkan nation for treatment. The Albanians accepted.
The State Department then spent months negotiating with Pakistan to arrange an exit plan. In late June, Pakistan announced the short-term resumption of a “pass” policy, under which Afghans invited by foreign destination countries could receive temporary transit visas.
More than 40 members of Ahmadi’s extended family crossed the border last month and boarded a US government-chartered flight to Albania, officials and family members said. An attempt to bring in more family members on another day failed and they were refused entry, officials and others with knowledge of the situation said.
For those in Albania, the State Department covers room and board at a secure hotel while they are screened and processed for travel to the United States under the refugee resettlement program, the senior State Department official said. A smaller segment of the family is being treated at Camp As Saylyah, the US Army base in Qatar.
The Biden administration’s tenuous relationship with the Taliban has encountered periodic hurdles in recent months over the Taliban’s policy toward women and girls and al-Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan after the U.S. exit.
Kaufman and officials said they remained concerned about finding a way out of the country for loved ones who remain stranded, and which Kaufman described as “increasingly desperate by the day and under constant threat. of the Taliban”. Kaufman said the family has yet to receive any monetary compensation. A defense ministry spokesman declined to comment.
Steven Kwon, president and chief executive of Nutrition and Education International, said on Monday that the recent evacuations came “after months of frustration and lack of progress”.
“However, I remain increasingly fearful for the people – including Zemari’s family members and our colleagues – who are still stuck in Afghanistan with no certainty or timeframe to get out,” Kwon said in a statement. “The US government must deliver on its promise and get everyone affected by its misguided drone strike to safety before it’s too late.”
Pentagon to step up military efforts to reduce civilian casualties
Legal and human rights experts who followed civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as those resulting from US drones and airstrikes outside official war zones, estimate that hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed as a result of US wars since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But the practice of compensating survivors is relatively rare, advocates say, due to a lack of transparency in the US government’s use of covert drone strikes and the failure to thoroughly investigate places that are often hard to reach for human rights monitors.
The drone strike last August was unusual in that it killed civilians in the Afghan capital amid a heavily guarded US withdrawal and evacuation effort that was already very chaotic and violent. Nutrition and Education International also released surveillance video showing Ahmadi carrying large canisters of water for his family shortly before the attack.
The US military later said it mistakenly believed it was targeting an agent transporting explosives from a safe house belonging to Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan and Pakistani branch of the Islamic State. The attack took place three days after an Islamic State-affiliated suicide bomber detonated a bomb in a crowd of Afghans outside Kabul airport. This attack killed nearly 200 Afghans and 13 American soldiers helping the Afghans to evacuate.
After the US military drone investigation strike, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hailed Ahmadi as a man who provided “life-saving care and assistance” through Nutrition and Education International, which has worked to alleviate hunger and malnutrition in Afghanistan.
Ted Muldoon in Albania contributed to this report.