Apology ‘not enough’, say survivors of US drone attack in Kabul

Grieving relatives of Afghan civilian victims demand accountability, as well as financial compensation for their losses and relocation.

People inspect the damage at the Ahmadi family's house in Kabul [Bernat Armangue/AP Photo]

A day after the United States military admitted that a drone attack in Afghanistan’s capital last month mistakenly killed 10 members of a family, including seven children, survivors have said Washington’s apology was not enough.

Aimal Ahmadi, whose three-year-old daughter Malika was killed on August 29, when the US hellfire missile struck his elder brother’s car, told Al Jazeera on Saturday that the family demands Washington investigate who fired the drone in the Kabul attack.

“I lost 10 members of my family; I want justice from the USA and other organisations,” he said. “We are innocent people, we didn’t do any mistake.”

Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid, who visited the site of the attack, said memorabilia of the children, including their toys, could be seen scattered.

“Family members told us that they are looking for compensation from the US. They want justice for their family members and if possible those who have remained in this compound want to leave Afghanistan,” he said.

“Here in this compound, there is death, misery and memories of those who passed, and people who try to rebuild their lives in the mayhem of what is Afghanistan and what happened to their families.”

Speaking to The Associated Press news agency, Ahmadi said the US should punish the military personnel responsible for the strike.

“That is not enough for us to say sorry,” said Ahmadi. “The US should find the person who did this.”

News organisations reported after the attack that the driver of the targeted vehicle, Zemerai Ahmadi, was a longtime employee at a US humanitarian organisation and cited an absence of evidence to support the Pentagon’s assertion that the vehicle contained explosives.

The missile struck as the car was pulling into the family’s driveway and the children ran to greet Zemerai.

On Friday, US Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, called the attack a “tragic mistake”, and after weeks of denials, said that innocent civilians were indeed killed in the attack and not a fighter associated with the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), as originally claimed by the US military.

“At the time of the strike, I was confident that the strike had averted an imminent threat to our forces at the airport. It was a mistake, and I offer my sincere apology,” McKenzie said, adding the US was considering making reparation payments to the family of the victims.

A day after the attack, family members told Al Jazeera that the 10 people killed ranged in age from two to 40 years old.

“They were innocent, helpless children,” Ahmadi told Al Jazeera at the time.

Afghan residents and family members of the victims gather next to a damaged vehicle inside a house, a day after a US drone attack in Kabul on August 30, 2021 [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

McKenzie said the decision to strike the white Toyota Corolla sedan, after having tracked it for about eight hours, was made in an “earnest belief” – based on a standard of “reasonable certainty” – that it posed an imminent threat to US forces at the Kabul airport. The car was believed to have been carrying explosives in its boot, he said.

But Ahmadi wondered how his family’s home could have been mistaken for an ISKP hideout.

“The US can see from everywhere,” he said of US drone capabilities. “They can see that there were innocent children near the car and in the car. Whoever did this should be punished.”

“It isn’t right,” he added.

Even as evidence mounted to the contrary, Pentagon officials asserted that the attack had been conducted correctly, to protect the US troops remaining at Kabul’s airport ahead of the final pullout the following day, on August 30.

‘Horrible mistake’

The drone attack followed a devastating suicide bombing by ISKP – a rival of the Taliban – that killed 169 Afghans and 13 US military personnel at one of the gates to the Kabul airport. For days, desperate Afghans had swarmed the checkpoints outside the airport, trying to leave the country amid the chaotic US and NATO troops’ pullout, fearing for their future under the Taliban.

McKenzie’s admission is a significant departure from the Department of Defense’s previous statements about the drone attack. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the attack as “righteous” several days after it was conducted.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released a statement on Friday also calling the attack a “horrible mistake”.

Members of Congress also called for a thorough investigation into the matter, including Betty McCollum, chair of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, said on Friday he will investigate “the accuracy and completeness of public statements” that the Pentagon made defending the attack.

Justice and punishment

Ahmadi insisted an official apology will not bring back members of his family, and said he was frustrated that it took weeks of pleading with Washington to at least make a call to the family.

Looking exhausted, sitting in front of the charred ruins of Zemerai’s car, Ahmadi said he wanted more than an apology from the US – he wanted justice, including an investigation into who carried out the strike “and I want him punished by the USA”.

Zemerai was the family’s breadwinner and had looked after his three brothers, including Emal, and their children.

International aid groups and the United Nations have warned of a looming humanitarian crisis that could drive most Afghans below the poverty level.

“Now I am then one who is responsible for all my family and I am jobless,” said Emal.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies