Public Health Professionals Must Demand an End to the Use of Weaponized Drones

by William Bruno, published on Truthout, January 14, 2022

On January 13, 2017, a family including a husband, wife and three small children scurried from building to building in East Mosul, Iraq. They were seeking refuge as a battle between ISIS (also known as Daesh) and U.S.-backed forces swirled around them. The family was huddled in an abandoned school surrounded by other civilians when a U.S.-operated drone struck and destroyed the structure. The father and one of his sons narrowly escaped with their lives. The tragic fate of his wife and other children would not be confirmed until months later when he watched as their bodies were excavated from the rubble.

This account was just one of several described in a recent publication of Pentagon reports documenting the extensive civilian casualties resulting from U.S. drone and air strikes. As the reporting shows, the considerable toll armed drones reap on civilian populations has largely been obfuscated by the U.S. government. What reporting such as this makes clear, however, is that weaponized drones are becoming a serious threat to public health.

The use of weaponized drones for targeted killings is not new and neither is the government’s lack of transparency. The U.S. government has been steadily increasing lethal covert drone operations since 2008, and almost everything we know about the program comes from whistleblowers and leakers. Specifics around the number of civilians killed and the extensiveness of the program are difficult to ascertain, but stories like the one above demonstrate the disregard for human life that results from the use of weaponized drones.

Like all violations of human rights, the public health community, of which I am a part, has an obligation to condemn the use of weaponized drones and demand an end to these targeted killings. If the goal of the public health sector — which includes health care practitioners, researchers, academics and policy makers — is, as the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) website states, “to prevent people from getting sick or injured,” then surely lending an authoritative voice in opposition to weaponized drones is more than appropriate.

U.S. citizens bear special responsibility. Unlike other causes of death or disability, weaponized drones are built, maintained and funded by our tax dollars. It is our elected officials who put them in action. Our complicity is unacceptable.

The APHA has made impassioned arguments advocating for the prevention of armed conflict from a public health perspective. However, little has been written specifically with regard to drones. This omission is important when one considers how our political leaders — even those often seen as advocates for “peace” — view the use of weaponized drones. For example, the Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning former President Barak Obama saw drone strikes as an alternative to the more uncouth, “stupid wars” that he railed against during his campaign. This perspective resulted in a huge expansion of the program under his administration with well over 500 strikes, including one that explicitly targeted and executed a 16-year-old-boy. Political leaders like Obama see drones as an acceptable “middle ground” that allows for the implementation of U.S. force without, at least ostensibly, the traditional collateral of American casualties or civilian deaths.

Drone strike-related deaths are not the only consequence felt by civilians. One researcher explains how children living in a region such as northern Pakistan — with heavy U.S. drone activity — “become hysterical when they hear the characteristic buzz of a drone,” which often circle overhead 24/7. The psychiatric toll this constant threat of violence takes on children is hard to imagine.

Despite the common refrain from U.S. government officials that weaponized drones offer an extremely “precise” method of targeting, the truth is that civilian casualties of weaponized drone attacks are a common occurrence. The indiscriminate nature of weaponized drone attacks is reminiscent of a much older though equally brutal weapon — landmines. Over the past several decades, human rights organizations, academics and activists have worked tirelessly to show the world that landmines maim and kill civilian populations, and therefore, their use should be banned. The public health community has played a pivotal role in this movement by, for example, conducting research which adds evidentiary support for the movement’s claims. The same tact should be taken with weaponized drones. Public health researchers should work with activists and human rights scholars to form a coalition that demands an end to the use of weaponized drones.

Professional societies such as the APHA could provide guidance highlighting the role of public health in ending the use of weaponized drones. This could take the form of a bold policy statement similar to the one APHA released in 2009 regarding public health’s role in the prevention of armed conflict.

With political leaders from both major U.S. parties seeing drones as a convenient workaround to the traditional pitfalls of American use of force, it is imperative that the public health community remind the world that these weapons have tragic consequences. It is our responsibility to lend our voices, research skills and positions of prominence to stop the use of weaponized drones and end the pain and suffering they cause.

*Featured Image:  Emal Ahmadi surveys the damage to his home after a U.S. drone strike killed 10 of his family members in Kabul, Afghanistan, on October 2, 2021. MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES

Copyright © Truthout.  Reprinted with permission.

William Bruno, M.D., is an emergency medicine resident physician at the LAC+USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. In addition to working clinically in the emergency department, William has research interests in humanitarian response and the ethics of conducting research in disaster settings. Follow William on Twitter: @williamjbruno.

New York Times Reporting on Airstrikes Should Give Daniel Hale More Credit

by Sam Carliner, published on Common Dreams, December 20, 2021

The New York Times recently came through with a display of reporting that should be commended. On December 18, the paper announced its release of hundreds of the Pentagon’s confidential reports of civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East. This follows its high profile investigations into the U.S. drone murder of the Ahmadi family during the Afghanistan withdrawal, and an American strike cell in Syria that killed dozens of civilians with airstrikes.

Many journalists will, rightfully, praise the New York Times for its reporting on U.S. airstrikes and the civilian cost. Far fewer will point out how the inhumanity of U.S. airstrikes were first revealed in 2013 by whistleblower Daniel Hale.

Hale used his first hand experience identifying targets for the drone program to highlight how it relies on faulty criteria, and as a result, kills civilians. Later, Hale worked for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, where he had access to documents on how the drone program operates. Hale provided those documents to the Intercept which published them as The Drone Papers in 2015. While Hale’s documents were not as comprehensive as the trove recently published by the New York Times, they did provide much of the same core revelations, particularly the faulty nature of how intelligence is gathered and the high civilian-toll of air campaigns. Most notably, Hale’s documents revealed that 90% of the drone program’s victims were not the intended targets. Up until the recent reporting by the New York Times, Hale’s revelations were the most comprehensive proof of how U.S. air warfare functions.

To be fair, the Times’ reporting on the brutal nature and high civilian cost of U.S. airstrikes is not insignificant. Americans could have easily ignored the Pentagon’s violence now that the “boots on the ground” approach to intervention has largely ended with Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal. In fact, the use of airstrikes was championed by Obama so as to avoid anti-war sentiments from Americans. The Times actually highlights this, writing:

“The air campaign represents a fundamental transformation of warfare that took shape in the final years of the Obama administration, amid the deepening unpopularity of the forever wars that had claimed more than 6,000 American service members. The United States traded many of its boots on the ground for an arsenal of aircraft directed by controllers sitting at computers, often thousands of miles away.”

Still, as much as the Times’ reporting already seems to be provoking conversation around U.S. air warfare, it is concerning that this conversation comes with the risk of Hale’s own heroic actions being disregarded. The Times makes no mention of Hale’s actions, even as they receive accolades for supposedly breaking to the world the violence of U.S. airstrikes. More damning is how little the Times has commented on the fact that Hale was sentenced to nearly four years in prison earlier this year for exposing the drone program. Aside from a standard article about his sentencing published in July, Daniel Hale is absent from the New York Times’ pages. Azmat Khan, the reporter behind the “Civilian Casualty Files” has not mentioned Daniel Hale once on Twitter.

It’s not like there have not been updates in Hale’s story since he was sentenced. After his sentencing, Hale was kept languishing in a jail for over two months even though he was supposed to be transferred in a matter of weeks. Once finally transferred, Hale’s situation was made worse. He was supposed to be sent to a prison that would provide care for his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis, but instead he is now being held in a communication management unit (CMU). CMU’s are designed for terrorists and “high-risk inmates” and detainees have highly restricted contact with the outside world. The American Civil Liberties Union has called on the U.S. government to end its use of CMUs, arguing that these “secretive housing units inside federal prisons in which prisoners are condemned to live in stark isolation from the outside world are unconstitutional, violate the religious rights of prisoners and are at odds with U.S. treaty obligations.”

Daniel Hale deserves freedom for revealing proof of the very crimes the New York Times is now being praised for exposing. His support team and anti-war activists have been working hard to grow concern and action for his cause, but that is a daunting task considering Hale is a person who the U.S. government, and U.S. military in particular, want silenced. But as the Times has shown with its own reporting of U.S. airstrikes, they have a platform that can cut through Pentagon-imposed silence. A single editorial calling for Hale’s release would do wonders for his cause.

Presumably, the Times reporters who have been investigating the violence of U.S. airstrikes are doing so because they believe the victims of U.S. air campaigns deserve justice. The Pentagon’s refusal to hold anyone accountable for their deadly Kabul airstrike in August signals that it will be an uphill battle holding anyone accountable for the newly-exposed airstrikes. Daniel Hale joined the fight to hold the Pentagon seriously accountable. He joined years before the New York Times did, and was treated like a criminal for it. The New York Times should give Daniel Hale proper credit and call for Biden to immediately pardon him. As long as he’s in prison, there is no justice.

*Featured Image: Drone whistleblower Daniel Hale (R) stands next to CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin outside the White House in Washington, D.C. in this undated photo. (Photo: Democracy Now!)

Sam Carliner is a journalist based in New Jersey. His writing focuses on US imperialism and the climate crisis. He is also the Weekend Social Media Manager at CodePink.


US Killer Drone Attacks Kill Innocent Civilians

by Larry Gilbert Sr., published, November, 18, 2021

As a people represented by our government, what gives us the right to go into other countries and indiscriminately assassinate people? Do we think that “American exceptionalism” gives us that right? How would we feel if the roles were reversed? Families around the world are merely trying to live their lives in peace as much as we are here in America.

As a Vietnam War veteran and seeing the ravages of war from that time forward, I have become a member of two organizations, Veterans for Peace and World Beyond War.

At the end of September, I traveled to Indian Springs, Nevada, to join with fellow members as well as members of Code Pink: Women for Peace and other organizations from 12 states. This is where Creech Air Force Base is located – some 50 miles north of Las Vegas.

We spent a week camped out in the desert. We conducted nonviolent protest actions at the entrance to the drone base twice daily, when drone pilots would arrive for work in the morning and leave at the end of their shifts. All the while during the day and night, killer drones were buzzing loudly over us and doing touch and goes on the runway.

The U.S. drone program has been ongoing for some 20 years by the Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency. As a country, we have used killer drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The last I knew, we haven’t declared war with these countries, other than Afghanistan and Iraq – our perpetual wars.

Hardly ever have we, the American people, heard of the strikes that are conducted ever so frequently in these countries with no accountability. Thousands of strikes have taken place during these 20 years and thousands of people have been killed, including so many innocent civilians. The civilians killed are merely referred to as “collateral damage.”

The “collateral damage” are families made up of innocent men, women and children.

As a people represented by our government, what gives us the right to go into other countries and indiscriminately assassinate people? Do we think that “American exceptionalism” gives us that right? How would we feel if the roles were reversed? Families around the world are merely trying to live their lives in peace as much as we are here in America.

On Aug. 29 of this year, as we were withdrawing from Afghanistan, the US fired a drone strike where its missile(s) struck a car parked by Zamarai Ahmadi outside his home. The strike slaughtered him and nine members of his family, including seven children, five of whom were younger than 10.

According to the New York Times, “the Pentagon claimed that Ahmadi was a facilitator for the Islamic State and that his car was packed with explosives, posing an imminent threat to US troops guarding the evacuation at the Kabul Airport.”

General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of the US Central Command, said “the drone strike dealt a crushing blow to Islamic State.” General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, called it a “righteous strike.”

I ask, what is righteous about killing 10 innocent people?

It was only after investigative news reports that there was proof that this was in fact an attack on Zamarai Ahmadi, 45, an engineer for a U.S.-based nonprofit. Generally, most drone strikes have no follow-up investigations.

A recent report of the incident said it was an “honest mistake” and what the drone pilots and their commanders saw was what they call “confirmed bias.” In other words, they saw what they wanted to see.

How often does that happen? I suspect quite often, by those giving the orders to fire the missiles.

Unfortunately, those young Air Force drone pilots have to come into work every morning and fire missiles from drones killing people during the day and go home to their families at the end of their shift, especially after seeing the carnage that they wreaked. I suspect that some of these pilots will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after a period of time.

How will they and their families’ lives be impacted in the years following? I would encourage those who feel this sense to seek help from organizations such as ours, Veterans For Peace, to assist them.

On another note, the Israeli government flies drones day and night over the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians live in a state of terror that missiles will be fired at them. Aside from that fear, the noise offers another sense of harassment.

It is high time to kill killer drones. Peace and justice.

Larry Gilbert Sr. is a former mayor and police chief of Lewiston, U.S. marshal, and U.S. Army veteran. Distributed by PeaceVoice.

Murder By Any Other Name

by Scott Ritter, published on Consortium News, November 6, 2021

On Aug. 29, the United States murdered ten Afghan civilians in a drone strike. The U.S. Air Force Inspector Gen., Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said, was appointed on Sept. 21, to lead an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the attack. On Nov. 3, Gen. Said released the unclassified findings of his investigation, declaring that while the incident was “regrettable,” no crimes were committed by the U.S. forces involved.

The reality, however, is that the U.S. military engaged in an act of premeditated murder violative of U.S. laws and policies, as well as international law. Everyone involved, from the president on down committed a war crime.

Their indictment is spelled out in the details of what occurred before and during the approximately eight hours a U.S. MQ-9 “Reaper” drone tracked Zemari Ahmadi, an employee of Nutrition and Education International, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that has been operating in Afghanistan since 2003, working to fight malnutrition among women and children who live in high-mortality areas in Afghanistan.

During those eight hours, the U.S. watched Ahmadi carry out mundane tasks associated with life in war-torn Kabul circa Aug. 2021. The U.S. watched until the final minutes leading up to the decision to fire the hellfire missile that would take Ahmadi’s life, and that of nine of his relatives, including seven children.

The investigation,” Gen. Said concluded in his report, “found no violation of law, including the Law of War.” One of the unanswered questions relating to this conclusion was the precise nature of the framework of legal authorities at play at the time of the drone strike, in particular the rules and regulations being followed by the U.S. military regarding drone strikes, and issues pertaining to Afghan sovereignty when it came to the use of deadly force by the U.S. military on Afghan soil.

At the time of the drone strike that murdered Zemari Ahmadi and his family, the policies governing the use of armed drones was in a state of extreme flux. In an effort to gain control over a program which, by any account, had gotten out of control in terms of killing innocent civilians, then-President Barack Obama, in May 2013, promulgated a classified Presidential Policy Guidance (P.P.G.) document entitled “Procedures for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets Located Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities.”

The 2013 P.P.G. directed that, when it came to the use of lethal action (a term which incorporated direct action missions by U.S. Special Operation forces as well as drone strikes), U.S. government departments and agencies “must employ all reasonably available resources to ascertain the identity of the target so that the action can be taken.” The document also made clear that “international legal principles, including respect for sovereignty and the law of armed conflict, impose important constraints on the ability of the United States to act unilaterally—and the way in which the United States can use force.”

The standards for the use of lethal force set forth in the 2013 P.P.G. contain two important preconditions. First, “there must be a legal basis for using lethal force.” A key aspect of this legal basis is a requirement that the U.S. have the support of a host government prior to the initiation of any lethal force on the territory of that nation. This support is essential, as it directly relates to the issue of sovereignty commitments under the U.N. Charter.

When the 2013 P.P.G. was published, the U.S. had the express permission of the Afghan government to carry out lethal drone strikes on its territory for the purposes of targeting both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Later, this authorization would extend to encompass the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K.

In 2017, then-President Donald Trump issued new guidance which loosened the conditions under which lethal force could be used in Afghanistan, including the use of armed drones. The Afghan government continued to provide host nation authorization for these strikes. When President Biden assumed office, in January, he immediately directed his National Security Council to begin a review of the policies and procedures surrounding the use of armed drones in Afghanistan.

One of the issues addressed in this review was whether the Biden administration would return to the Obama-era rules requiring “near certainty” that no women or children are present in an area targeted for drone attack or retain the Trump-era standard of only ascertaining to a “reasonable certainty” that no civilian adult men were likely to be killed.

Complicating matters was the fact that the Biden administration was preparing for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which required that the rules and procedures for use of armed drones in Afghanistan be altered to reflect a new reality where U.S. forces were no longer being directly supported, and that the armed drone program would be conducted in an environment where the Afghan government was the exclusive recipient of armed drone support. These new rules and procedures were part of what the Biden administration called its “over the horizon” (OTH) counterterrorism strategy.

Before the new OTH policies and procedures directive could be issued, however, the reality on the ground in Afghanistan changed completely, making the policy document obsolete before it was even issued. The rapid advance of the Taliban, coupled with the complete collapse of the Afghan government, threw into question the legal underpinnings regarding the authority of the U.S. government to conduct armed drone operations in Afghanistan.

The new rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban, did not approve of U.S. armed drone operations. Instead, the Taliban had executed a secret annex to the February 2020 peace agreement reached with the Trump administration regarding its commitment to dealing with counterterrorism issues in Afghanistan once the U.S. withdrew. President Biden determined that his administration would be bound by the terms of that agreement.

Two points emerge from this new environment—first, from a legal standpoint, the U.S. military remained bound by the “reasonable certainty” of the Trump-era policies regarding the use of armed drones, and second, from the standpoint of international law as it relates to sovereignty commitments, the U.S. had no legal authority to conduct armed drone operations over Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters in Kabul, Aug. 17, 2021. (VOA, Wikimedia Commons)

While the U.S. had not formally recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, President Biden’s commitment to adhere to commitments made under the terms of the February 2020 peace agreement, coupled with the fact that the U.S. was engaged in active negotiations with the Taliban in Doha and in Kabul regarding issues pertaining to security of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan and Kabul, make clear that for all sense and purpose, the U.S. treated the Taliban as if they were the sovereign authority in Afghanistan.

In Order to Be Legal

For U.S. drone operations on Aug. 29, to be legal in Afghanistan, the U.S. government had to either gain public approval for these operations from a sovereign authority, gain private approval from a sovereign authority, or else demonstrate that a sovereign authority was unable or unwilling to act, in which case the U.S. could, under certain conditions, consider unilateral action.

Gen. Said does not provide any information as to how he ascertained U.S. compliance under international law. Public statements by the Taliban appear to show that they did not approve of U.S. drone strikes on the territory of Afghanistan. Indeed, when the U.S. carried out a similar drone attack, on Aug. 27, targeting what it claimed were ISIS-K terrorists, the Taliban condemned the strike as a “clear attack on Afghan territory.”

The second precondition set forth in the 2013 P.P.G. authorizing the use of lethal action was that the target must pose “a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” In his presentation on the Aug. 29, drone strike, Gen. Said stated that “[i]ndividuals directly involved in the strike…believed at the time that they were targeting an imminent threat. The intended target of the strike, the vehicle, its contents and occupant, were genuinely assessed at the time as an imminent threat to U.S. forces.

When promulgating its 2013 P.P.G. on drone strikes, the Obama administration adopted an expanded definition of what constituted an “imminent threatpublished by the Department of Justice in 2011, which eschewed the notion that in order to be considered “imminent”, a threat had to be a specific, concrete threat whose existence must first be corroborated with clear evidence.

Instead, the Obama administration adopted a new definition that held that an imminent threat was inherently continuous because terrorists are assumed to be continuously planning attacks against the U.S.; all terrorist threats are considered both “imminent” and “continuing” by their very nature, removing the need for the military to gather information showing precisely when and where a terrorist threat was going to emerge.

To make the case of an “imminent” (and, by definition, “continuing”) threat, all the U.S. needed to do in the case of Zemari Ahmadi was create a plausible link between him and potential terrorist activity. According to Gen. Said, “highly classified” (i.e., Top Secret) intelligence was interpreted by U.S. personnel to ascertain the existence of a terrorist threat.

This assessment was used to create a linkage with Ahmadi, and the subsequent “observed movement of the vehicle and occupants over an 8-hour period” resulted in confirmation bias linking Ahmadi to the assessed terrorist threat.

Who Was in Command?

Zemari Ahmadi’s actions on Aug. 29, did not trigger the drone attack. Instead, the U.S. appeared to be surveilling a specific location in Kabul, looking for a White Toyota Corolla (ironically, the most prevalent model and color of automobile operating in Kabul) that was being converted by ISIS-K terrorists into a weapon to be used against U.S. forces deployed in the vicinity of Kabul International Airport.

This safe house was located about five kilometers west of Kabul International Airport, in one of Kabul’s dense residential neighborhoods. The specific source of this information is not known but given Gen. Said’s description of it as “highly classified”, it can be assumed that this information involved the interception of specific communications on the part of persons assessed as being affiliated with ISIS-K, and that these communications had been geolocated to a specific area inside Kabul.

One of the issues confronting the U.S. during this time was the absolute chaotic nature of the command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) infrastructure that would normally be in place when carrying out any military operations overseas, including something as politically sensitive as a lethal drone strike. It wasn’t just the policy guidelines for the use of lethal drone strikes that were in limbo on Aug. 29, 2021, but also who, precisely, oversaw what was going on regarding the employment of drones in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military and C.I.A. had completely withdrawn from Afghanistan when the decision was made to begin noncombatant evacuation operations (N.E.O.) operating from Kabul International Airport. The deployment of some 6,000 U.S. military personnel was accompanied by an undisclosed number of C.I.A. and Special Operations forces who were tasked with sensitive human and technical intelligence collection, including intelligence sharing and coordination with the Taliban.

To support this activity, an expeditionary joint operations center (JOC) was established by U.S. forces, led by Rear Admiral Peter Vasely, a Navy SEAL originally dispatched to Afghanistan to lead Special Operations, but who took over command of all forces when the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, left in July 2021.

Admiral Vasely was assisted by Major Gen. Chris Donahue, a former Delta Force officer who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division. While both Vasey and Donahue were experienced combat commanders, they were singularly focused on the issue of securing the airport and evacuating personnel under a very constrained timeline. Managing drone operations would be handled elsewhere.

As part of President Biden’s vision for Afghanistan post-U.S. evacuation (and pre-Afghan government collapse), the Department of Defense had established what was known as the Over the Horizon Counter-Terrorism Headquarters at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Commanded by Brigadier Gen. Julian C. Cheater, Over the Horizon Counter-Terrorism, comprised of 544 personnel, was tasked with planning and executing missions in support of Special Operations Command-Central across four geographically-separated locations in the United States Central Command area of responsibility, including Afghanistan.

But Gen. Cheater had only assumed command in July, and his organization was still getting settled into its new quarters (Brigadier Gen. Constantin E. Nicolet, the deputy commanding general for intelligence for the Over the Horizon Counter-Terrorism headquarters, did not arrive until Aug. 11.) As such, much of the responsibility for coordinating drone operations into the overall air campaign operating in support of the Kabul N.E.O. (which, in addition to multiple C-17 and C-130 airlift missions per day, included AC-130 gunships, B-52 bombers, F-15 fighters, and multiple MQ-9 Reaper drones) was handled by Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center (C.A.O.C.), located at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

The Video Source

Gen. Said, in his presentation, made mention of “multiple video feeds” when speaking of the information being evaluated by U.S. military personnel regarding the strike that killed Ahmadi and his family. This could imply that more than one MQ-9 drone was operating over Kabul that day, or that video feeds from other unspecified sources were also being viewed.

It also could be that the MQ-9 that fired the Hellfire missile that killed Ahmadi and his nine relatives was flying by itself; the MQ-9 carries the Multi-Spectral Targeting System, which integrates an infrared sensor, color, monochrome daylight TV camera, shortwave infrared camera, the full-motion video from each which can be viewed as separate video streams or fused together. In this way, one drone can provide several distinct video “feeds”, each of which can be separately assessed for specific kinds of information.

The MQ-9 is also capable of carrying an advanced signals intelligence (SIGINT) pod, producing yet another stream of data that would need to be evaluated. It is not known if this pod was in operation over Kabul on Aug. 29. However, according to The New York Times, U.S. officials claim that that the U.S. intercepted communications between the white corolla and the suspected ISIS-K safehouse (in actuality, the N.I.E. country director’s home/N.I.E. headquarters) instructing the driver (Ahmadi) to make several stops.

Logic dictates that the U.S. military kept at least one, and possible more, MQ-9’s over Kabul at all times, providing continuous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance overwatch during the conduct of the evacuation operation. The primary MQ-9 unit operating in the Persian Gulf region at the time was the 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron, which operated out of Ali Al Salem Air Base, in Kuwait.

Given the logistical realities associated with drone operations over Afghanistan, which required a lengthy flight down the Persian Gulf, skirting Iran, and then over Pakistan, before reaching the central Afghanistan region, the 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron more than likely forward deployed a ground control station used to take off and recover the MQ-9 drones, along with an undisclosed number of drone aircraft, to Al Udeid Air Base, in Qatar.

The time of flight from Al Udeid to Kabul for an MQ-9 drone is between 5 and 6 hours; a block 5 version of the MQ-9, such as those operated by the 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron, can operate for up to 27 hours. It is possible that a single MQ-9 drone was on station for the entire period between when Ahmadi was first taken under surveillance until the decision to launch the Hellfire missile that killed him was made; it is also very possible that there was a turnover between one MQ-9 and another at some point during the mission. In either instance, a long-duration mission such as that being conducted on Aug. 29, would have been logistically and operationally challenging.

The crew from the 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron was responsible for launching and recovering the MQ-9 drone from its operating base; once in the air, control of the drone was turned over to drone crews assigned to the 432nd Expeditionary Air Wing, based out of Creech Air Base, in Nevada. These crews work with the Persistent Attack and Reconnaissance Operations Center, or PAROC, also located at Creech Air Base.

The PAROC coordinates between the 432nd Wing Operations Center, which serves as the focal point for combat operations, and the Over the Horizon Counter-Terrorism Headquarters and Central Command Combined Air Operations Center, both out of Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The PAROC serves as a singular focal point for mission directors, weather analysis, intelligence analysis and communications for drone operations over Afghanistan.

At each node in this complex command and control system, the video feeds from the drone(s) involved can be monitored and assessed by personnel. Such an overlapping network of agencies was implied by Gen. Said in his presentation, when he spoke of interviewing “29 individuals, including 22 directly involved in the strike” for his report.

Given that Gen. Said’s remit is limited to the military forces involved, it is not known if he interviewed another party reportedly involved in the drone strike—the C.I.A. Multiple sources have indicated that C.I.A. analysts were involved in evaluating the video feeds associated with the drone strike of Aug. 29, and that they provided input regarding the nature of the target.

C.I.A. Involvement

The C.I.A. operates what is known as the Counterterrorism Airborne Analysis Center out of its Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There, a fusion cell of intelligence analysts drawn from across the U.S. intelligence community monitor a wall of flat screen monitors that beamed live, classified video feeds from drones operating from around the world, including Afghanistan.

The C.I.A.’s involvement suggests that because of the confusion surrounding the legality of drone operations in Afghanistan following the collapse of the Afghan government, the Biden administration opted to conduct drone operations under Title 50, covering covert C.I.A. activities, as opposed to Title 10, which cover operations conducted under traditional military chain of command.

In any event, what is known is that an MQ-9 drone, flown by pilots from the 432nd Expeditionary Wing operating out of Creech Air Base, in Nevada, was surveilling a specific neighborhood in Kabul on the morning of Aug. 29, where intelligence sources indicated an ISIS-K terrorist cell was in the process of converting a white Toyota Corolla into a weapon—perhaps a car bomb—that was to be used against U.S. forces operating at Kabul International Airport.

The U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan were on high alert—on Aug. 26, ISIS-K fighters had launched a coordinated attack using suicide bombers and gunmen on a U.S. checkpoint at the airport, killing 13 U.S. service members and some 170 Afghans, including nearly 30 Taliban fighters.

According to a timeline put together by The New York Times, Zemari Ahmadi left his home, located in a neighborhood about two kilometers west of the airport, in a white Toyota Corolla owned by his employer, Nutrition and Education International (N.E.I.). Ahmadi had worked with N.E.I. since 2006 as an electrical engineer and volunteer, helping distribute food to Afghans in need.

The country director for N.E.I. had called Ahmadi at around 8:45 am, asking him if he could stop by the country director’s home and pick up a laptop computer. Ahmadi left his home at around 9 am, and drove to the country director’s home, located about five kilometers northwest of the airport. The drone operators were surveilling the compound where the country director lived, having assessed that it was an ISIS-K safe house.

It is at this point the intelligence failures that led to the murder of Ahmadi and his family began. The country director, whose name has been omitted for security reasons, is a well-known individual whose biometric information, including place of work and residence, has been captured by a highly classified Department of Defense biometric system called the Automatic Biometric Identification System, or ABIS. ABIS, part of what the U.S. calls its strategy of “Identity Dominance”, was specifically set up to help identify targets for drone strikes and was said to contain more than 8.1 million records.

The ABIS, when integrated with other data bases such as the Afghanistan Financial Management Information System, which held extensive details on foreign contractors, and an Economy Ministry database that compiled all international development and aid agencies (such as N.E.I.) into a singular searchable Geographic Information System, or G.I.S., gives an analyst the ability to scroll a cursor over a map of Kabul, coming to rest over a given building, and immediately accessing information about who resides there.

Both the country director and Ahmadi, as Afghans affiliated with western aid organizations who moved with relative freedom around Kabul, were included in these data bases.

Massive Intelligence Failure

Zemari Ahmadi. (Ptipti/Wikimedia Commons)

The fact that a U.S. intelligence analyst could confuse the known residence/headquarters of a U.S.-funded aid organization with an ISIS-K safe house is inexcusable, if indeed these data bases were available for query.

It is possible that (because of the transitional environment) the events of Aug. 29 transpired with no definitive rules of engagement in place, and that the command and control structure was in a high state of flux, so that the data base was either shut down or otherwise inaccessible. In any case, the inability to access data that had been collected over the course of many years by the United States for the express purpose of helping facilitate the counterterrorism-associated targeting of armed drones represents an intelligence failure of the highest order.

The community of analysts, spread across several time zones and distinct geographical regions, representing agencies with differing legal and operational frameworks, began monitoring the movement and activities of Ahmadi. He picked up a laptop computer from the country director, which was stored in a black carrying case of the kind typically used to carry laptop computers. Unfortunately for Ahmadi, the ISIS-K suicide bombers who attacked the U.S. position at Kabul International Airport on Aug. 26 carried bombs that had been placed in similar black carrying cases, reinforcing what Gen. Said called a chain of “confirmation bias.”

Ahmadi then went on a series of excursions, picking up coworkers at their homes, dropping them off at various locations, stopping for lunch, and distributing food. Near the end of the day, Ahmadi returned to the N.E.I. headquarters where he used a hose to fill up plastic containers with water to bring home (there was a water shortage throughout Kabul, and Ahmadi’s home had no running water.)

Analysts watching Ahmadi’s actions somehow mistook the act of using a garden hose to fill plastic jugs with water as him picking up plastic containers containing high explosives that could be used in a car bomb—another case of “confirmation bias.”

At least 22 sets of eyes were watching this, using multi-spectral cameras capable of ascertaining movement of water, temperature variations, all in high-resolution video feeds. How not a single pair of eyes picked up on what was really happening is, yet again, a huge failure of intelligence, either in terms of training as an imagery analyst, poor analytical skills, or both.

But even with all of this “confirmation bias” weighing in favor of classifying Ahmadi as an “imminent threat”, neither he nor his family were condemned to die. Under International Human Rights Law, lethal force is legal only if it is required to protect life (making lethal force proportionate) and there is no other means, such as capture, of preventing that threat to life (making lethal force necessary).

If Ahmadi’s car, upon leaving the country director’s home, had headed toward a U.S.-controlled checkpoint around Kabul International Airport, then U.S. personnel monitoring the drone feed would have had every right, under the procedures then in place, to consider Ahmadi a “continuing imminent threat” to American life, thereby freeing the drone crew to fire a Hellfire missile at the vehicle to destroy it.

Instead, he drove home, pulling into the interior courtyard of his building complex. At this juncture, Ahmadi and his vehicle could not, under any circumstance, be considered an active threat to American life. Moreover, with the vehicle immobile and still under observation, options could now be considered for “other means”, such as capture, to remove the vehicle and Ahmadi as a potential future threat.

While the U.S. and the Taliban had an implicit agreement that U.S. forces would not operate outside the security perimeter of Kabul International Airport, the Taliban were fully capable of sending a force to investigate and, if necessary, detain Ahmadi and his vehicle. The U.S. admits to actively sharing intelligence with the Taliban and acknowledge that the Taliban had proven itself capable of acting decisively to neutralize threats based upon the information provided by the U.S.

The Taiban interest in stopping a suicide bomber was manifest—they had suffered twice as many killed than the U.S. in the Aug. 26 attack on the Airport, and were sworn enemies of ISIS-K. All the U.S. had to do was pass the coordinates of Ahmadi’s home to the Taliban, and then sit back and watch as the Taliban responded. If the Taliban failed to act, or Ahmadi attempted to drive away from his home in the white corolla, then the U.S. would be within its rights under international law to attack the car using lethal force.

However, to get there the U.S. first needed to cross the legal hurdle of exhausting “other means” of neutralizing the potential threat posed by Ahmadi’s car. They did not, and in failing to do so, were in violation of international law when, instead, they opted to launch a Hellfire missile.

The decision to fire the Hellfire missile was made within two minutes of Ahmadi arriving at his home. According to The New York Times, when he arrived, his car was swarmed by children—his, and those of his brother, who lived with him. For some reason, the presence of children was not picked up by any of the U.S. military personnel monitoring the various video feeds tracking Ahmadi.

The drone crew determined that there was a “reasonable certainty”—the Trump-era standard, not the “near certain” standard that would have been in place had the Biden administration published its completed policy guidance document regarding drone strikes—that there were no civilians present. How such a conclusion can be reached when, on review, the video clearly showed the presence of children two minutes before the Hellfire missile was launched—has not been explained.

But Gen. Said wasn’t the only one who saw children on the video feed. At the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Airborne Analysis Center in Langley, at least one analyst working in the fusion cell there saw the children as well. According to media reports, the C.I.A. was only able to communicate this information to the drone operators who fired the Hellfire after the missile had been launched, part of the breakdown in communications that Gen. Said attributed to the chain of mistakes that led to the deaths of Ahmadi and his family.

Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said. (U.S. Air Force)

What Gen. Said failed to discuss was the communications channels that the C.I.A. information had to travel to get to the drone operators. Did the C.I.A. have a direct line to the pilots of the 432nd Expeditionary Wing? Or did the C.I.A. need to go through the Over the Horizon Counter-Terrorism headquarters, the Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), the Persistent Attack and Reconnaissance Operations Center, or PAROC, or the 432nd Wing Operations Center, which communicated directly with the drone crew?

According to The New York Times, the tactical commander made the decision to launch the Hellfire missile, another procedural holdover from the Trump-era, which did away with the need for high-level approval of the target before lethal force could be applied.

The professionalism of those involved in reviewing the drone feed was further called into question when the analysts, observing a post-strike explosion of a propane tank in the courtyard of Ahmadi’s apartment complex, mistook the visual signature produced as being that of a car bomb containing significant quantities of high explosive.

Gen. Said’s report covers up a multitude of mistakes under the guise of “confirmation bias.” In his report he notes that “[t]he overall threat to U.S. forces at [Kabul International Airport] at the time was very high,” with intelligence indicating that follow-on attacks were “imminent.” Perhaps most importantly, Gen. Said writes that “[t]hree days prior, such an attack resulted in the death of 13 service members and at least 170 Afghan civilians. The events that led to the strike and the assessments of this investigation should be considered with this context in mind.”

If that is indeed the standard, then Gen. Said must consider the words of President Biden at a press conference held on Aug. 26, after the ISIS-K attack on Kabul International Airport. “We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said. “We will not forgive, we will not forget.”

Revenge was clearly a motive, with the drone operators leaning forward to put into action the President’s directive to hunt the enemy down and make them pay. Did the drone operators see children in the video feed? They say no, even though the C.I.A. analysts saw them prior to the launching of the Hellfire missile, and Gen. Said saw them after the fact.

These same drone operators were riding high on four years of “hands off” operations, where they were free to launch drone strikes under a “reasonable certainty” standard which was put in place knowing that the result would be more innocent civilians killed.

Some of the Obama administration rules were getting in the way of good strikes,one U.S. official is quoted saying about the need for looser restrictions. Gen. Said makes no reference to the impact the Trump-era policy had on conditioning drone operators to be more tolerant of civilian casualties, even to the extent that they looked the other way if acknowledgement of their presence could prevent a “good strike.”

What’s Wrong With the Program

The drone strike that killed Ahmadi and his family in many ways embodies all that was wrong with the U.S. lethal drone program as it was implemented in Afghanistan and elsewhere, failing to further legitimate U.S. national security objectives while harming U.S. credibility by wantonly killing innocent civilians.

A case can be made for criminal negligence on the part of all parties involved in the murder of Ahmadi and his family. But it is unlikely that any such charges will ever be put forward. The attack clearly violates international law, although the Biden administration will claim otherwise.

Gen. Said acknowledges so-called “confirmation bias” without getting to the bottom of what caused those involved in the drone strike to get it so wrong. Gen. Said alludes to systemic problems, such as the need to “enhance sharing of overall mission situational awareness during execution” and review “pre-strike procedures used to assess presence of civilians.”

But systemic (i.e., procedural) errors can only explain away so much. At some point the professionalism of the individuals involved must come under scrutiny, both in terms of their technical qualifications to carry out their respective assigned missions, as well as their moral character in willingly tolerating the deaths of innocent civilians in the name of mission accomplishment. Gen. Said leaves open the possibility that someone, somewhere, in the chain of command of these individuals can decide that the events of that day was a byproduct of “subpar performance” resulting in some form of “adverse action.”

That, however, is just another way of excusing murder, of tolerating a war crime committed in the name of the United States.

The day after Ahmadi and his family were murdered by U.S. forces, ISIS-K, operating from a safe house near to where the N.E.I. country director lived, used a modified white Toyota Corolla to launch rockets toward the U.S. positions in and around Kabul International Airport.

Fortunately, there were no causalities. But neither was the ISIS-K attack thwarted by a U.S. drone program that had been tipped off in advance about the nature and location of the attack. The ability to kill innocent civilians while failing to interdict genuine security threats is perhaps the most accurate epitaph one could ascribe to the U.S. lethal drone program in Afghanistan.

Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD.


U.S. Group Opposing Drone Attacks Demands Reparations for Afghan Family

by PCIM, published on The Edge, October 20, 2021

On August 29, after hours of surveillance on what it believed to be a vehicle containing an ISIS bomb, the U.S. military fired a drone strike on civilian driver Zemari Ahmadi in Kabul, Afghanistan. The military stated the strike may have killed three civilians, though reporting by the New York Times showed it killed 10, including seven children, of the Ahmadi family.

As the Times explained, “the people who rode with Mr. Ahmadi that day said that what the military interpreted as a series of suspicious moves was simply a normal day at work.” And while the military claimed a second explosion after the drone strike indicated that there were explosives in the vehicle, the Times found no evidence to suggest this.

Ahmadi Family from NY Times Video

Ban Killer Drones, a national network resisting the use of drone attacks, is calling for reparations to the Ahmadi family, saying thousands of others killed by U.S. drones deserve similar payments, which should be made under the oversight of Congress’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

The $3 million U.S. payment to the family of Giovanni Lo Porto when he was killed by a U.S. drone in Pakistan in 2015 sets the minimum standard that the U.S. must meet in compensating families of civilians who are killed by U.S. drones,” said Nick Mottern of the Ban Killer Drones network.

Our concern goes beyond the tragic deaths within the Ahmadi family to the thousands of victims of U.S. drone attacks,” said Brian Terrell, also a member of the Ban Killer Drones network, “most of whom were not those targeted and none of whom were found guilty in any court. Justice demands that compensation be paid to all their families.”

Photo of family members of victims of drone strikes in Pakistan, taken at a meeting in Islamabad in 2012, ~Judy Bello

These reparations payments obviously cannot bring back these precious lives,” Mottern said, “but they can communicate a respectful recognition by the U.S. military of the widespread, devastating, unacceptable harm that is being inflicted by U.S. drone attacks, on individuals, families, and entire communities — communities that also must receive compensation.”

Ban Killer Drones has issued a list of demands concerning the U.S. military’s drone program and reparations to its victims:

1. An official apology by President Biden, as commander in chief of the U.S. military, to the Ahmadi family for the deaths of their family members.

2. Reparations of $3 million minimum for each of the 10 Ahmadi family members killed in the strike.

3. An immediate report from the Department of Defense detailing who in the chain of command was responsible for the drone attack on the Ahmadis. This includes the release of all communications and logs related to the attack from the White House down to the operator who pressed the button to launch the attack, and a report on whether and what charges are to be brought against those responsible for the killings.

4. That the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress:

1)  Investigate all U.S. drone attacks since 2001 pursuant to identifying all civilian and non-combatant victims;

2)  Oversee the disbursement of reparations to their families;

3)  Receive petitions and claims of victims of U.S. drone attacks and take actions as required to satisfy these petitions and claims;

4)  Seek the appropriation of sufficient funds to compensate families of non-combatant drone attack victims at the level of $3 million for each victim;

5)  And  provide compensation to communities that have suffered U.S. drone attacks.

5. An immediate halt to all U.S. drone attacks and an end to U.S. plans and taxpayer support for weaponizing drones of all types.

The Ban Killer Drones network is comprised of concerned citizens, in local and national peace and justice organizations, many of them in communities in which there are killer drone control bases. Together they are organizing to achieve a United Nations conference to adopt and ratify an international treaty to ban weaponized drones and military and police drone surveillance.

NEI’s Reaction to the Pentagon’s Admission of Error in US Drone Strike in Kabul on 8/29/2021

Statement by Nutrition and Education International (Employer of Zemari Ahmadi in Kabul)

In the Pentagon’s 9/17 briefing, General McKenzie admitted the 8/29 US drone strike in Kabul that killed Zemari Ahmadi and nine family members was a “tragic mistake.” We are grateful for their recognition of the mistake. General McKenzie also confirmed that the recent DoD investigation into this strike was unable to establish any connection between ISIS-K and Zemari, his relatives, his Nutrition & Education International (NEI) colleagues, and NEI’s Kabul compound. We appreciate that these false accusations have finally been cleared.

The General’s statement confirms what was previously reported in the media and what NEI has known all along. We are grateful that the media coverage has been proven accurate and that Zemari’s honorable name can be restored. NEI thanks the in-depth investigative reporting by the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, ABC, CBS, NPR, Associated Press, as well as many other regional news outlets for bringing these facts to light.

We are pleased that the Department of Defense is exploring ex gratis payments to Zemari’s remaining relatives and others involved in this unfortunate incident. General McKenzie says this will be difficult as the DoD has no presence on the ground. NEI is offering to be the DoD’s main point of contact with Zemari’s family and NEI’s Afghan colleagues through its Kabul office. However, we are still waiting to be contacted by the DoD to help facilitate this process.

Source: Nutrition and Education International

At this point, NEI’s primary concern is for the safety and welfare of Zemari’s remaining relatives in Kabul. Although General McKenzie delivered a general apology for this drone strike, NEI hopes the DoD will also apologize directly to Zemari’s remaining relatives. We hope that lifetime financial support will be provided to Zemari’s wife and daughter as it will be impossible for them to survive without Zemari and his brothers in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. We also hope the DoD will expedite processing of P2/SIV visas for Zemari’s relatives, as well as provide resettlement support.

NEI is also concerned for the safety of its remaining Afghan colleagues who are now branded as ISIS terrorists. We are hoping the DOD will directly apologize to these colleagues, expedite the processing of their P2/SIV visas, and provide resettlement support.

* This is what they say, whether it is fully in alignment with our stance is not the point.  They are standing by the Ahmadi family to the best of their ability.

In Honor of Zemari Ahmadi, NEI will Continue on in its Vision and Humanitarian Efforts

Due to unsettling recent events, many of our soy farmers, especially in the Northern provinces, have fled their homes to seek refuge in Kabul. These internally displaced refugees, primarily women and children, are suffering from a lack of food, water, and other necessities. To honor Zemari, NEI will continue to work towards eradicating protein-energy malnutrition in Afghanistan. (Zemari Ahmadi distributing soy-based meals in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 2021.)


“America’s Longest War” Is Not Over!

by Brian Terrell, September 8, 2021

On August 31, President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. stepped up to the White House podium, squared his shoulders, looked the American public straight in the eye — and told them the biggest lie of his Presidency (so far).

What he said was:

“Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan—the longest war in American history.”

But the U.S. war on Afghanistan did not end on August 31. It has only adapted to technological advances and morphed into a war that may be less visible—and therefore more politically sustainable.

It will also continue to destabilize the Middle East, immiserate and enrage its 246 million inhabitants, and fuel a massive new influx of violent jihadists recruits—formidably armed with our own abandoned weaponry and bent on revenge against America for the deaths of their families and friends. This will, of course, require the U.S. to launch even more drone bombing missions, which will kill even more Afghan people.

That is the perfect recipe for perpetuating the “forever wars” that Biden promised to end. But it is also a perfect reassurance to the military-industrial-intelligence complex, to which Biden promised, at a June 2019 campaign fundraiser, that nothing would fundamentally change.”

In his speech on August 31, Biden himself admitted,

“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground—or very few, if needed.”

Five days before, on the evening of Thursday, August 26, hours after a suicide bomb was detonated at the gate of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport killing and wounding scores of Afghans trying to flee their country and killing 13 U.S. soldiers, President Biden spoke to the world, “outraged as well as heartbroken,” he said.

Many of us listening to the president’s speech, made before the victims could be counted and the rubble cleared, did not find comfort or hope in his words. Instead, our heartbreak and outrage were only amplified as Joe Biden seized the tragedy to call for more war.

“To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,”

he threatened.

“I’ve also ordered my commanders to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership and facilities. We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose and the moment of our choosing.”

The president’s threatened “moment of our choosing” came one day later, on Friday, August 27, when the U.S. military carried out a drone strike against what it said was an ISIS-K “planner” in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province.

The U.S. military’s claim that it knows of “no civilian casualties” in the attack is contradicted by reports from the ground. “We saw that rickshaws were burning,” one Afghan witness said. “Children and women were wounded and one man, one boy and one woman had been killed on the spot.”


A relative throws himself and weeps over the casket of Farzad, 12, who was killed by U.S. drone airstrikes, according to the family, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2021. [Source:]

Fear of an ISIS-K counterattack further hampered evacuation efforts as the U.S. Embassy warned U.S. citizens to leave the airport. “This strike was not the last,” said President Biden. On August 29, another U.S. drone strike killed a family of ten in Kabul.


The first lethal drone strike in history occurred in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, when the CIA identified Taliban leader Mullah Omar, “or 98-percent probable it was he,” but the Hellfire missile launched by a Predator drone killed two unidentified men while Mullah Omar escaped.

These two recent instances of “force and precision” ordered by Biden twenty years later marked the presumed end to the war there just as it had begun. The intervening record has not been much better and, in fact, documents exposed by whistleblower Daniel Hale prove that the U.S. government is aware that 90% of its drone strike victims are not the intended targets.

Zemari Ahmadi, who was killed in the August 29 drone strike in Kabul along with nine members of his family, seven of them young children, had been employed by a California based humanitarian organization and had applied for a visa to come to the U.S., as had Ahmadi’s nephew Nasser, also killed in the same attack.

Nasser had worked with U.S. Special Forces in the Afghan city of Herat and had also served as a guard for the U.S. Consulate there. Whatever affinity the surviving members of Ahmadi’s family and friends might have had with the U.S. went up in smoke, that day. “America is the killer of Muslims in every place and every time,” said one relative who attended the funeral, “I hope that all Islamic countries unite in their view that America is a criminal.” Another mourner, a colleague of Ahmadi, said “We’re now much more afraid of drones than we are of the Taliban.”


Friends, relatives and colleagues of Mr. Ahmadi insist he could not possibly have had links to ISIS-Khorasan. [Source:]

The fact that targeted killings like those carried out in Afghanistan and other places from 2001 to the present are counterproductive to the stated objectives of defeating terrorism, regional stability or of winning hearts and minds has been known by the architects of the “war on terror,” at least since 2009.


Thanks to Wikileaks, we have access to a CIA document from that year, Making High-Value Targeting Operations an Effective Counterinsurgency Tool. Among the “key findings” in the CIA report, analysts warn of the negative consequences of assassinating so-called High Level Targets (HLT).

“The potential negative effect of HLT operations, include increasing the level of insurgent support …, strengthening an armed group’s bonds with the population, radicalizing an insurgent group’s remaining leaders, creating a vacuum into which more radical groups can enter, and escalating or de-escalating a conflict in ways that favor the insurgents.”

The obvious truths that the CIA kept buried in a secret report have been admitted many times by high-ranking officers implementing those policies. In 2013, General James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, reported in The New York Times,

“We’re seeing that blowback. If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”

In a 2010 interview in Rollingstone, General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, figured that “for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies.” By the general’s equation, the U.S. created a minimum of 130 new enemies for itself in the strikes ordered by President Biden on August 27 and 29 alone.

When the catastrophic consequences of a nation’s policies are so clearly predictable and evidently inevitable, they are intentional. What has happened to Afghanistan is not a series of mistakes or good intentions gone awry, they are crimes.

In his novel, 1984, George Orwell foresaw a dystopian future where wars would be fought perpetually, not intended to be won or resolved in any way and President Eisenhower’s parting words as he left office in 1961 were a warning of the “grave implications” of the “military-industrial complex.”

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange noted that these dire predictions had come to pass, speaking in 2011:

“The goal is to use Afghanistan to wash money out of the tax bases of the U.S. and Europe through Afghanistan and back into the hands of a transnational security elite. The goal is an endless war, not a successful war.”

No, the war is not over. From a nation that should be promising reparations and begging the forgiveness of the people of Afghanistan comes the infantile raging, “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay” and while pledging to perpetuate the conditions that provoke terrorism, the parting taunt “and to ISIS-K: We are not done with you yet.”

That the U.S. is not done with Afghanistan is seen further in the scramble to recruit new intelligence assets such as Ahmad Massoud, 32, commander of the Tajik-dominated National Resistance Front (NRF), which continues to fight a low-level insurgency in the Panjshir Valley against the Pashtun-led Taliban, who are viewed as a proxy of the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Massoud is the son of the legendary anti-Soviet fighter, Ahmad Shah Massoud, whom the CIA financed and equipped in the late 1990s before acquiescing to his assassination two days before the 9/11 attacks because he was against a full-fledged U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan.

The CIA’s nefarious activities in Afghanistan and perpetuation of the drone war are little debated in the simplistic dualism of U.S. partisan politics where the issue seems to be only whether the current president should be blamed or should be given a pass and the blame put on his predecessor. This is a discussion that is not only irrelevant but a dangerous evasion of responsibility. Twenty years of war crimes makes many complicit.

In 1972, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

“Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, [and] in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

All of us in the U.S., the politicians, voters, tax payers, the investors and even those who protested and resisted it, are responsible for 20 years of war in Afghanistan. We are also all responsible for ending it–definitively.

*Featured Image: A man grieves during a mass funeral for members of a family was killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.  ~ Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times

Brian Terrell is a longtime Activist and lives on a Catholic Worker Farm in Maloy, Iowa.   Brian is a founding member of the Ban Killer Drones Network.  He has traveled to Afghanistan several times and been arrested numerous times in civil resistance actions opposing drone warfare.

Kids Die Last as Biden Plays Tough Guy

by Dave Lindorff, published on Counterpunch, October 3, 2021

First there was a catastrophic but predictable attack on US and Taliban troops as well as desperate civilians trying to escape the ruins and chaos of the country the US occupier was leaving behind to the victorious Taliban. One or more IS-K terrorists wearing exploding vests filled with shrapnel, possibly backed by other IS fighters firing automatic weapons, were reportedly joined by panicked US Marines confused about who the attacking enemy was. The explosion and ensuing fire-fight ended up slaughtering 170 or more Afghans (civilians and Taliban fighters) and 13 US servicemen and women (12 Marines and one Navy medic) and badly wounding many more people.

That terrorist attack was followed by a drone rocket revenge attack ordered by President and Commander in Chief Joe Biden. It was an attack which by all accounts went spectacularly and horrifically awry, killing not an IS-K terror plotter as initially claimed by the Pentagon, but a family of 10 including a US interpreter, all of whom — both three adults and seven children including a child of only 2 — had been given papers allowing them to get on one of the US evacuation flights at the Kabul Airport, but they had been unable to get through all the various checkpoints to accomplish that.

There were fabricated reports from the US of secondary explosions intended to suggest that the van that was struck had been carrying terrorists wearing explosive belts — stories which were completely untrue according to US and other foreign reporters who went to the scene. There were also reports of secondary explosions in an adjacent building, which were also false and self-serving from those in Washington trying to deny the disastrous error.

The two incidents provided a graphic illustration of why the US lost its longest war.

First of all, terrorism has never been diminished in Afghanistan because of the US invasion and occupation of that country. Not only did the Taliban adopt some of the strategies of resistance fighters against US occupation, such as in Iraq, turning to IED explosions and car bombs, but new terror groups like the Islamic State moved into the chaotic scene, attacking both US and Taliban forces. The latest attack at the airport was one of the largest of the war in terms of the number of victims.

Meanwhile, the errant drone missile slaughter of an entire family of pro-American would-be immigrants by a US drone missile was proof positive of what critics of US drone warfare have been saying for years: Drones, often operated by pilots halfway around the world in Nevada and Pennsylvania (near me) are a grotesquely deadly form of warfare that kills vastly more innocent people than the actual targets that it seeks to kill. Often the reason is mistaken coordinates or even flight-controller errors, but just as often it is a problem of bad intelligence, frequently caused by US “assets” in-country providing deliberately wrong targeting information either to sabotage US efforts and increase opposition to the US occupiers, or simply to settle scores with an asset’s own rival.

A lack of transparency and honesty by the Pentagon and the White House through four presidencies has made things worse. Information about civilian deaths since the beginning of this war in 2001 has been withheld, and when some atrocity is impossible to deny — for example, when as has happened all too many times in this war, a wedding processing is blown up when it is confused with a group of enemy forces on the move, or when a hospital is attacked — the number of innocents murdered is low-balled.

Biden did what George Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump couldn’t do: he has finally ended the war on Afghanistan by the US. He made a mess of it though by dragging out the process by seven months when he could have negotiated an armistice and brought the troops home immediately upon taking the office — US troops, other Americans, and even Afghans who helped the US occupiers. The Taliban would likely have been happy to accept a peaceful return to power and probably would have seen letting people leave as a good trade for that. Instead, Biden ended up being a fourth president at war in Afghanistan, with blood on his own hands, and the US ended up losing a fighting war — badly.

Meanwhile, the war may be over for US troops, but it isn’t over for Afghanistan. The US violence and destruction of that long-suffering country has left it confronting a bloody civil war now as factions and tribal regions vie for power. As well, Biden has said that the US will still feel free — despite the blatant illegality of such actions under international law — to bomb and send in armed drones to attack targets by air in Afghanistan, just as the US did in the last days of the US military’s retreat. US soldiers will still be fighting, but instead of facing bullets and IEDs in Afghanistan, they’ll be sitting in air-conditioned pods on US military bases using video-game-like air-conditioned pods to control death-bringing, rocket-armed drones.

America itself will also still be in a state of war, as Congress continues to leave in place the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). That war authorization )approved by Congress on September 18, 2001 after no hearings or debate), to launch the illegal war on Afghanistan, was also used to launch the so-called War on Terror. The latter has been an amorphous, borderless “war” that legal shills working for the government like former US Assistant Attorney General John Yoo have successfully claimed includes, until rescinded, the entire territory of the United States within its Constitution and Bill of Rights-shredding “battlefield.” It has given presidents, in the view of the Supreme Court, dictatorial powers undreamt of by the Constitution’s authors, permitted indefinite incarceration without charge or trial, warrantless government eavesdropping, extra-judicial government murder and kidnapping, and the jailing of whistleblowers and journalists in violation of US laws designed to defend such people and their actions.

Biden has done nothing to put an end to the continuing air war against Afghanistan or to the War on Terror.

There will be no ticker-tape parade for veterans of the Afghanistan War or the War on Terror. It will likely be erased from US history to the extent that the US government and the duopoly War Party and their complicit mass media can do it. Just as vastly bloodier Vietnam and Korean Wars have been white-washed into family-friendly noble if unsuccessful efforts to “defend freedom,” the Afghanistan War will be remembered, if it is remembered at all, as an attempt to punish the attackers of 9/11 (never mind that no Afghani or Taliban fighter ever attacked the US, on 9/11 or anytime during the last two decades of US war on Afghanistan). The rest of those sordid two decades will be whitewashed away.

We shouldn’t let that happen.

Instead, we should remember the slaughtered family of Zemari Ahmadi, who paid with their lives so that President Biden could “look tough” in the face of critics at home blasting his botched decision to pull US forces out of Afghanistan without any armistice or truce agreement.

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

Military Analysis of Kabul Drone Strike Reveals US Was Unsure About Target

by Dave Decamp, published on, September 6, 2021

The US has vehemently defended its August 29th drone strike in Kabul that witnesses say killed 10 civilians, including seven children. But a preliminary military analysis of the bombing that was reported by The New York Times revealed that the Pentagon has no proof the vehicle it targeted was carrying explosives.

The drone strike targeted a vehicle that was driven by Zemari Ahmadi. It hit the car after he pulled into his family’s home, killing children and other relatives who went out to greet Ahmadi.

US military leaders have claimed the civilians were killed by a secondary explosion caused by explosives in Ahmadi’s car. Relatives of Ahmadi who witnessed the strike dispute the claim, and sources told the Times that the US military has no concrete evidence there were bombs in the car. The preliminary analysis only says it was “possible to probable” there were explosives in the vehicle.

Ahmadi’s neighbors and relatives have strongly disputed the idea that he was affiliated with ISIS-K and say he worked with Nutrition and Education International, a charity based out of California. Other Ahmadi family members killed in the strike previously worked with the US-backed Afghan security forces, including a nephew who applied for a visa to be evacuated to the US.

The Times report said the US had no previous intelligence on Ahmadi and only decided he was ISIS-K based on his actions in the moments leading up to the strike. Ahmadi was tracked by an MQ-9 Reaper drone after he drove out of a location that US intelligence analysts believed was an ISIS-K safe house in Kabul.

The report said operators of the MQ-9 watched on a grainy black and white feed as Ahmadi and three other men loaded “wrapped packages” into his car. The only evidence the US has to claim these packages were explosives is that they appeared to be heavy, based on how the men carried them.

The report said Ahmadi then pulled into an “unknown compound,” and the commander controlling the drones ordered the strike. Witnesses have asked how the US didn’t see the children in the courtyard where Ahmadi was. The Times said the operators only saw one other man when the strike was ordered. After it was launched, the drone operators saw other figures enter the courtyard.

Shortly after the strike, US military officials claim they thwarted another bombing of the Kabul airport. The White House has described the attack as “successful, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said it was “righteous.” It’s clear by the witnesses’ accounts on the ground and the Times report that the US really had no idea who they were bombing. But this is the nature of US drone strikes and why they often result in so many civilian casualties.

*Featured Image: An Afghan inspects the damage at the Ahmadi family house in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. Zemerai Ahmadi, the Afghan man who was killed in a U.S. drone strike last month, was an enthusiastic and beloved longtime employee at an American humanitarian organization, his colleagues say, painting a stark contrast to the Pentagon’s claims that he was an Islamic State group militant about to carry out an attack on American troops.(AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
By Associated Press

Dave DeCamp is the news editor of, follow him on Twitter @decampdave.

The Distributed Empire of the War on Terror

by Madiha Tahrir, published in the Boston Review, September 10, 2021

I have been kind of hoping that Imran Khan might have stopped the disappearances and drone strikes on Pakhtuns in Pakistan.   And it’s possible he has.   I hope so.  Meanwhile, Madiha paints a vivid picture of the suffering induced in Pakistan Tribal Regions and around the globe by the U.S. War of Terror. ~jb

In Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016), Viet Thanh Nguyen writes that U.S. films tend to substitute American pain for Vietnamese pain. “Americans love to imagine the war as a conflict not between Americans and Vietnamese,” observes Nguyen, “but between Americans fighting a war for their nation’s soul.” The last twenty years of the so-called War on Terror have stuck to this script. Consider the sheer number of articles, interviews, and think pieces on the anguish and trauma of the American soldier.

A thriving subset of this genre reports on the mental afflictions of the drone operator. These psychic lacerations, caused by having to watch the murderous effects of their own handiwork, have been elevated beyond a clinical condition into a philosophical anguish called “moral injury.” The term originated in 1994 with psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who argued that a diagnosis of PTSD did not sufficiently capture the “soul wound” inflicted when one commits acts “that violate one’s own ethics, ideals, and attachments.” Following the start of the drone war, dozens of articles in outlets such as GQ (2013), Slate (2016), NPR (2017), the New York Times (2018), and the Washington Post (2021) followed—along with scholarly publications across the political spectrum—probing the mental states and suffering of the United States’ newest class of violence workers (a term I borrow from David Correia and Tyler Wall).

Lost in all this business of soul-wounded warriors is the relatively unfashionable wounding of empire’s targets. It doesn’t make for the kind of war story Americans want to learn about. A friend who is an award-winning magazine journalist explained the craft to me like this: “You have to ask yourself, if this story were a movie, what role is Matt Damon going to play?” The formulation is brutally honest about the seductive racial and colonial fantasies that are both subtext and, well, text of modern war reporting.

Where does that leave the rest of us—we, who belong to the browner parts of the Earth, we who are fighting on multiple fronts?

In Pakistan, the country of my birth, the country from which I became a refugee, the country to which I returned as a journalist and then as a scholar, I have had friends, comrades, and colleagues forcibly disappeared, sometimes killed. Particularly in the regions I have covered—the Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan that are being drone-bombed today and the province of Balochistan where a separatist movement is underway—the risk intensifies.

Photos circulate on Whatsapp groups—a confession, a beheading, a bomb blast, a body twisted and turned inside out. I once woke to photos of charred corpses, exposed bone and pink flesh, bloody as fresh butcher’s meat. It took me time to understand the diagram of these unholy bodies, where the legs should have been, where the mouth and the eyes must have once existed. The media relations arm of the Pakistani security forces had circulated the images as evidence of a “successful” counterattack against “militants.”

The United States began bombing the border zone, then known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in 2004, ostensibly to combat al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It has bombed the area at least 430 times, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalists, and killed anywhere between 2,515 to 4,026 people.

But the United States is not the only force bombing the region. Between 2008 to 2011 alone, the Pakistan Air Force carried out 5,500 bombing runs and dropped 10,600 bombs. The Pakistani security forces have also conducted scores of major military operations in the Tribal Areas as well as other Pashtun regions. There is no detailed accounting of the human costs of these military assaults.

When I traveled to the northern valley of Swat following Operation Rah-e-Rast (Righteous Path) in 2009, bullet marks and gaping holes scarred the low-lying homes along my drive. There, among others, I met Asfand Ali, whose brother and father were killed when a mortar shell blasted through their house. I asked him about the operation. “Whatever they do is just fine,” he told me. “They killed a lot of innocent people.” A ghost of a smile flickered across his face. “They can do whatever they want. It’s the government.”

Some time later, when I suggested to a Western leftist that we, we U.S. leftists, rework our analyses to account for the devastation caused by the Pakistani security forces, he disagreed. “What Pakistan does in Pakistan,” he shook his head, “that’s not our concern.” It was certainly my concern but, as someone with diasporic sensibilities, I have become used to pronouns like “we” and “our” as spaces of uneasy solidarities (to borrow a turn of phrase from Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang).

I also understand the impulse that drove his response. Global powers have repeatedly used the human rights abuses of other states, or the need to save brown women, or UN resolutions stating a “responsibility to protect” as pretext to invade less powerful nations. But, in restricting attention to the direct actions of the U.S. state, we fail to grasp the mechanics and manifold distributions of empire.

With the United States now shifting its strategy in Afghanistan from a direct military occupation with ground troops to an aerial drone bombardment conducted, it seems, in collaboration with the Afghan Taliban, it is critically urgent that we—we who dream of liberation—grapple with the complexity of imperial entanglements. What is happening with Afghanistan is less a withdrawal than a redistribution of imperial power. The United States is dispersing its war-making to collaborators and security assemblages that will help render empire difficult to track—a game that the United States has long played in Pakistan.


During my research on the war in FATA, I ran across a small handbill asking for help finding a missing teenager. The sheet had been distributed by his family. The boy had been badly injured when a U.S. drone bombed a funeral in the Tribal Areas. It was, in fact, the second bombing that day. Earlier, U.S. violence workers had killed several people in the same area; one of the dead, they thought, was important enough to draw out the senior leadership of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to the dead man’s funeral, which happened later the same day. In their staunch belief that “terrorist” funerals only draw out other terrorists, they then bombed the mourners.

Here, I suppose I could pause and add an explanation of how we, we Muslims, bury our dead. This could include a description of the speed of funerals after a person’s death, or disclose funeral sociality in this part of the world. Certainly, a journalist reporting on the bombing for a Western press outlet felt compelled to clarify in an article I read that the attendance at funerals of Taliban figures was not limited to guerrilla fighters.

I hung at this sentence when I read it because I have written sentences just like it as a former journalist. You are trying to explain how it came to pass that dozens of people died, or you slip it in because you’re trying in your small brown way in a white media establishment to remind U.S. readers about the inordinate toll, or your editor asks for “context,” and you’re reduced to explaining the self-evident (funerals draw together family and community!) as if it were some peculiar borderland ritual.

I could also parse the statistics of this bombing—but I think that would all miss the point, which is that they bombed because they could.

Consider that drones are actually technological failures as weapons of war, if by “war” we mean a contested battleground. They are easily shot down and, as U.S. military officials have stated, they are unfit for fighting with a “near peer adversary.” This is why the U.S. Air Force is trying to retire the MQ-9 Reaper drone.

It follows, then, that to fly drones over the Tribal Areas requires not only coordination with Pakistani authorities for airspace, but also a whole host of largely opaque negotiations and arrangements that barter the lives of ethnic Pashtuns in FATA in the imperial war market. In other words, the “organized abandonment” (to use abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s terms) of border zone populations has been crucial to maintaining drone bombardment.

Checkposts and moveable checkpoints surveil, intimidate, and interrupt the movement of people, journalists, and information in and out of the Tribal Areas. These physical blockades have been augmented by a digital enclosure, especially in Waziristan, on the southern tip of the Tribal Areas, where bombardments have been heaviest. The strategic absence of sufficient electronic infrastructure—from the Internet to cell phone towers—has not only made the relay of information difficult following bombardments, but has limited the global circulation of photos and videos documenting the aftermath. In the Obama years, therefore, news stories on drone bombardment quickly took on a standardized, anesthetized structure: an anemic lede stating where the attack had taken place, followed by a quote from anonymous Pakistani officials categorizing the dead as “militants” or “civilians,” then a short final paragraph on the alleged lawlessness of the region. It became small news.

British colonial knowledge, predating Pakistan’s independence, still underwrites these arrangements. Gazettes, tribal descriptions, and genealogies produced by colonial authorities remain standard fare on the bookshelves of Pakistani bureaucrats and analysts. The largest bookstore in Islamabad, which caters to the instrumental knowledge class—including Western ambassadors, the CIA, the U.S. State Department, and other administrators, UN officials, and NGO workers—keeps these colonial texts in stock for its customers, alongside more recent pop literature by U.S. terrorism experts.

After independence, this knowledge shaped the continuation of a colonial regime in all but name within the Tribal Areas. There, the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), a draconian set of laws enacted by the British and justified as granting tribal autonomy, continued to be enforced. Under these regulations, FATA Pashtuns could not vote. Instead, an appointed Political Agent with sweeping powers governed each of the administrative districts or “agencies” that make up the Tribal Areas. The agent was judge, jury, and administrator. He could deliver executive judgments and detain entire communities on suspicion of a crime by one of their members. While the FCR was formally repealed in 2019, meaningful change has yet to take shape on the ground.

The War on Terror, particularly as manifest in the Tribal Areas, remixes the colonial-era stereotype that Pashtuns are especially fanatical with post-9/11 fears about Pashtuns’ alleged propensity for terrorism. Not only does the propaganda arm of the Pakistani security forces churn out films that regularly depict Pashtuns as terrorist villains, but private television shows and advertisements also ridicule Pashtuns as extremists.

Poorer Pashtuns, especially, have been subject nationwide to police crackdowns, raids, and the razing of katchi abadis (squatter settlements). Following a bomb blast in Lahore, for instance, a traders’ association demanded identity documents from Pashtun traders, and the police circulated notices about surveilling Pashtuns as well as Afghan refugees, some of whom are ethnically Pashtun. (Sanaa Alimia has richly documented how identity documents work as a means to surveil and control these Afghan refugee communities.)

In short, while there are caricatures about all ethnicities in Pakistan, only one of them is conflated with the Western fantasy of the “terrorist.” Pashtuns have become what Samar Al-Bulushi calls “citizen-suspects”—racialized populations subjected to suspicion, surveillance, and paranoid state imaginaries, thus making them vulnerable to overwhelming state violence. Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator who seized power in a 1999 coup and collaborated with the United States following 9/11, was explicit about his government’s strategic abandonment of Pashtuns specifically and Pakistanis more broadly. Asked by the CIA how the agency could conduct drone bombings without admitting responsibility, Musharraf was dismissive. “In Pakistan,” he said, “things fall out of the sky all the time.”

This is how the funeral came to be bombed. But these genealogies of violence do not make for good copy, so we—we who know better—settle for a docile sentence about how villagers attend funerals too.

Luckily the boy was still alive, but in urgent need of medical attention. He was badly burned and bleeding. The local hospital could not care for his wounds. So, his father and other family members loaded him into an ambulance, and it sped off toward the nearest well-equipped hospital several hours away.


In 2006 two journalists appeared before a Pakistani court as defendants. They were accused of leaking official secrets because they had been filming at Shahbaz airbase, a Pakistan Air Force holding, in the southern city of Jacobabad. The base was one of the earliest used by U.S. forces for flying drones in the region.

While the use of the airbase may have technically been secret, it was of course known to Jacobabad locals; no fewer than three Predator drones had crashed in and around the city in 2003 due to technical failure. In addition to drones falling from the sky, the increased securitization of the area had alerted uneasy residents to the goings-on at the airbase.

This may have been why television reporter Mukesh Rupeta and cameraman Sanjev Kumar were filming at the airbase when they were picked up and disappeared. Unlike ordinary arrests with their attendant paperwork and bureaucratic procedures, disappearance makes it difficult to know who or which agency has taken someone, where the detainee has been taken, and whether they will ever be seen again—and that unknowability is the point. Without accountability, the state’s agents are able to engender spaces where things can fall out of the sky, where the potential for violence is enormous.

In this case, Rupeta and Kumar were turned over to the police three months later. While police officials refused to say who had initially detained them, a relative of one of the men told reporters that they had been detained by Pakistani intelligence officials linked to the military, and that at least one of the reporters had been tortured.

A week before Rupeta and Kumar were presented in court, the body of another journalist was found dumped in Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan in FATA. Hayatullah Khan was a Waziri reporter who, six months earlier, had photographed remnants of a Hellfire missile, the first visual proof that the United States was bombing the border zone. The photos were published in international news outlets, and the next day Hayatullah was disappeared.

On the U.S. news, I often heard experts and analysts claim that part of the appeal of drone warfare to the Obama administration was that it offered a viable alternative to detentions. John Bellinger, the former legal advisor for the Bush administration, told audiences in 2013, “This government has decided that instead of detaining members of al-Qaeda [at Guantánamo] they are going to kill them.”

But all the while in Pakistan, secret detention centers and black sites continued to metastasize. Together they constitute Pakistan’s “little Guantánamo Bay,” as rights activist Amina Masood Janjua puts it. During the early years of the war, Musharraf literally sold detainees picked up in Pakistan to the United States. We know this because the ignominious buffoon boasted about it in the English edition of his autobiography. He admitted to auctioning 369 detainees; the figure that Pakistan handed over may be as high as 800. While some of these people ended up in Guantánamo, others were disappeared into CIA secret prisons in multiple countries.

In Pakistan, U.S. operatives, working jointly with their Pakistani counterparts, interrogated prisoners in secret locations. Pakistani security officials also acted as the heavy in many cases, detaining and torturing prisoners. Moazzam Begg, perhaps one of the most famous detainees, was initially held by the Pakistani spy agency, the ISI, at a house used as a detention site in the G-10 neighborhood of Islamabad. The CIA’s prison program was eventually terminated but, by then, detention was beginning to take on a life of its own inside Pakistan.

In 2011 the Pakistani government used anti-terrorism as a justification to formalize roughly forty internment centers. While little is known about these sites, almost all of them appear to be based inside existing prisons, military forts, and jails. All of them are also located in the predominantly Pashtun regions of the country, which underscores the racialization of Pashtuns as terrorists.

These practices have been especially difficult to track in FATA in part because arbitrary detention and collective punishment—often described in other contexts as “extrajudicial”—have been, in these regions, legal. Under the FCR, that legal remnant of British colonial rule, people could be detained for up to two years at the will of the Political Agent with no recourse to courts. Add to the blockades, military forts, internment centers, and jails of the Tribal Areas the carceral spaces across the rest of the country—more internment centers, military and paramilitary bases, secret compounds, and ordinary jails where the disappeared sometimes mysteriously reappear—and an entire carceral geography flickers into view.

Documenting these practices and carceral spaces, however, can land one in trouble. Activist Alamzaib Mehsud, who is attempting to keep an archive of detentions, disappearances, mine blasts, and extrajudicial murders in FATA, was himself picked up in January 2019 and charged with rioting and inciting hatred for an allegedly anti-military speech. He was released almost nine months later.

The War on Terror is not the first time the Pakistani government has deployed detention and disappearance. During the 1973 insurgency in Balochistan, Pakistani forces disappeared Baloch activists, and under the U.S.-backed regime of military general Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, critics and dissidents were, at times, picked up and disappeared.

With the War on Terror, however, these practices have expanded in both scope and geography. A wider array of dissidents, activists, and critics has been detained, as well as a host of other individuals deemed by the state, because of ethnicity or class, to be suspect: madrassa students, laborers, bus passengers. Sometimes the disappeared return in strange form. In March this year, road workers at a construction site in the Tribal Areas unearthed the bones and personal effects of a teacher disappeared thirteen years ago.

In an act that would be parodic were the stakes not so horrific, the Pakistani government has set up a Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances: the government looking into government crimes. It is a largely toothless affair, for the committee dares not name the military perpetrators. Police reports of disappearances, when the family manages to get them filed, regularly note down that the suspected perpetrators are na maloom afraad, unknown persons. It works as a shorthand: we, we Pakistanis, know who the Unknown are.

These carceral geographies are also available to bolster U.S. empire and drone warfare. Karim Khan, an anti-drone activist, was disappeared in 2014 days before he was due to speak with European parliamentarians and the International Criminal Court at the Hague about drone bombardment in the Tribal Areas. (U.S. violence workers had killed Khan’s son and brother when they bombed his home in 2009.) Khan’s captors did not identify themselves, but the method of his disappearance—plainclothes men accompanied by police officers who bundled him into an unmarked vehicle—bears the hallmark of the Pakistani security apparatus. During his detention, his captors beat him and interrogated him about his contacts, other drone victims, his upcoming trip, and what he intended to make public. Karim was released after nine days and, though he still traveled to Europe to testify, the detention scarred him. When I saw him after, he appeared withered and reported difficulty sleeping as well as bouts of anxiety. Alamzaib, too, was picked up again in 2020 from his home hours after posting a video on social media criticizing U.S. drone bombardment and asking questions about the Pakistani military’s complicity. He was not disappeared. In his case, the local police served as captors, taking him without an arrest warrant and keeping him for twenty-three days.

And so, this is what I know about what happened to the boy on the missing poster, the one who had just barely survived the US bombing of the funeral. As the ambulance sped toward the hospital, Pakistani security forces blockaded the road and stopped it from passing. They ordered everyone out of the vehicle. The ambulance driver, the boy’s father, the relatives traveling with him—and the boy himself—were all disappeared.


Is this a story of U.S. empire or of Pakistani state impunity? And what are the stakes when drawing such a distinction?

The story about the boy’s disappearance doesn’t fit neatly into the popular understanding of what drone warfare looks like. Our conceptual frames tend to restrict our attention to the deaths and injuries caused instantly by Hellfire bomb blasts, but the lives of drone survivors, and of the communities living through the war, go on. Drone survivors, like others in the border zone, are also people who have cousins taken by the Taliban, or an uncle whose decomposing body is found in the market after several months of disappearance, or a brother who is detained indefinitely by the Pakistani military.

The failure to see the full scope of the war has the effect of isolating the drone from the broader social and material worlds that make the drone war possible. This blindness rehearses the logic of U.S. empire. Preferring to frame its interventions as temporary and limited, the United States has been adept at distributing its capacities for violence among networks of collaborators. It need not explicitly demand the detentions of Rupeta, Kumar, Hayatullah, Karim, or Alamzaib. Having set the broad terms of its imperial project through opaque arrangements with the cruelest segments of the Pakistani state, it can disperse its war-making among transnational security assemblages.

For the Pakistani security state, in turn, the U.S.-led vitalization of terrorism as an ideological framework has enlarged the space for its own geopolitics, sometimes in tension with the United States but always in loose collaboration. These take many forms, including attacking critics in the name of national security, using War on Terror rhetoric to assault peasant movements and thieve land, passing broad surveillance and anti-terrorism laws, committing extrajudicial murders and totalizing military operations, forcing mass displacements that have reshaped FATA, and using the war to intervene in Afghanistan.

For the United States, the expansion of these Pakistani militarist projects has allowed for a displacement of responsibility, and the ability to strategically shift scales. Western and international publics may be attuned to direct U.S. actions, but “local” cases of detention, disappearance, extrajudicial murder, and even military operations go largely unnoticed. This is the distributed empire of the United States, one that exceeds the direct actions of the U.S. state—and continues to shape lives long after the drones have gone.

It has been years now since the boy was disappeared. Everyone else has been released, but he remains an absent presence. Sometimes, people never return. But, when I speak to a member of his family, I cannot ask that question, so I ask instead, “How is the family nowadays?”

He understands, responds, “We are searching for him.”

Madiha Tahrir is a Pakistani American journalist and researcher.