KABUL, Afghanistan – The Afghan man who was killed in a US drone strike last month was an enthusiastic and valued longtime employee of a US aid organization, his colleagues say, in stark contrast to the claims of the Pentagon that it was a militant Islamic State group about to carry out an attack on US troops.
Signs are mounting that the US military may have targeted the wrong man in the August 29 strike in Kabul, with devastating consequences, killing seven children and two other adults in his family. The Pentagon said it was further investigating the strike, but had no way of doing so on the ground in Afghanistan after the Taliban took control, severely limiting its ability to gather evidence.
Family accounts, documents from colleagues seen by the Associated Press, and the scene at the family home – where Zemerai Ahmadi’s car was hit by a Hellfire missile just as he was pulling into the driveway – appear all strongly contradict the narratives of the United States. military. Instead, they paint a picture of a family who had worked for the Americans and were trying to get visas for the United States, fearing for their lives under the Taliban.
At home, the mutilated and cremated Toyota Corolla remains in the driveway. But there is no sign of significant secondary explosions which the Pentagon says were caused by explosives hidden in the trunk of the car. Within the narrow, walled enclosure the house is not damaged except for the broken glass, even a poorly constructed wooden balcony remains in place. A brick wall right next to the car is intact. Trees and foliage near the car are neither burnt nor torn up.
The family wants the United States to hear their side of the story and see the facts on the ground.
“We just want them to come here. See what they did. Talk to us. Give us the proof, ”Emal Ahmadi, Zemerai’s younger brother, said of the US military. On the verge of tears, he opened a photo on his phone of his 3-year-old daughter, Malika, in her favorite dress. Another photo showed her charred remains after being killed in the strike.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted that he did not know whether the man targeted by the strike was an IS member or an aid worker. “I don’t know because we are examining it,” he said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
The strike was carried out in the last days of the US presence in Afghanistan, as US troops were carrying out evacuations at Kabul airport. A few days earlier, an IS suicide bomber at the airport had killed 169 Afghans and 13 US servicemen.
The Pentagon says the strike prevented another ISIS attack at the airport. Officials said the US military watched the car for hours as it was driving and saw people loading explosives in the back. A few days later, amid reports of children being killed, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it a “fair blow” and said “at least one of those killed was an ISIS facilitator, ”using an acronym of the Islamic State group.
The United States acknowledged reports of civilian casualties and said they could have been caused by secondary explosions. The family said when Zemerai, 37, alone in his car, pulled up outside the house, he honked his horn. His 11 year old son ran out and Zemerai let the boy enter and drive the car into the driveway. The other children rushed to watch, and the missile cremated the car, killing seven children and an adult son and Zemerai’s nephew.
“It was my last memory, the sound of his horn,” said another of Zemerai’s brothers, Romal Ahmadi, who was inside the house at the time. Her three children, aged two to seven, were killed.
Zemerai worked for 15 years for Nutrition & Education International, a California-based nonprofit aimed at tackling malnutrition in Afghanistan. Romal also worked briefly for NEI.
Just days before the strike, Zemerai and Romal applied for special visas to the United States for those who had worked with American companies. His brother, Emal and the nephew who was killed, Ahmad Naser Haideri, had also applied for special visas due to their work for the US military.
Emal provided the PA with documents that included their visa applications, letters of recommendation and even a medal Haideri had received for his service in an elite specially trained special force in the United States. Haideri also had a letter of reference from the United States-based Multi Country Security Solutions Group, where he worked as a contractor, calling it “an important part of our commitment to provide the best and loyal service to the United States Special Forces.”
“He was a great employee,” company president Timothy Williams, who wrote the reference letter, told the AP. “I’m not going to change this just because of the incident that happened. I’ll stand behind my guys.
Zemerai’s colleagues at NEI described him as a talented worker who grew from a handyman to a skilled engineer and essential employee.
Last year, when the company was unable to pay full-wage employees due to the coronavirus pandemic, employees were given the option of leaving their jobs for better-paying work elsewhere.
But Ahmadi refused, saying, “I am NEI. From start to finish, until we hit our goal, ”company founder and president Steven Kwon told the AP.
Colleagues remembered him as a loving father and enthusiastic dancer who kept an optimistic spirit amid the chaos of his surroundings and was quick to comfort those around him with a joke. He had grown up in poverty in Kabul and had “such a heart for the poor,” said a colleague who asked to be identified only as Sonia for security reasons.
“He was definitely the best of us. Absolutely, ”she said.
He’s also always supported the company’s efforts to hire more women and create programs for women, which is one of the many reasons his colleagues said the suggestion he was tied to any sort extremism seemed absurd to them.
“Everything we hear about him is so disturbing and absurd because he had such love for his people,” Sonia said. “How could he turn around overnight and start wanting to kill his own people.” It makes absolutely no sense. “
It seems unlikely that the United States will send someone to the Ahmadi to investigate. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said he was “not aware of any option that would put investigators on the ground in Kabul.” The US Central Command said it would rely on “other means”, without giving details but apparently meaning the surveillance video and the interceptions that led to the strike.
The family, distressed and furious, still want to seek refuge in the United States. In addition to their already existing concerns about their past work with the United States, they now fear the new Taliban leadership will suspect them of being ISIS. The Islamic State group is a violent rival of the Taliban.
“The United States accused us. They haven’t cleared our name and they won’t even talk to us, and now the suspicion is on us, ”Email said. “We are angry, but we don’t know what to do. For our safety we would go to America, but it must be all of our families, not just me. “
Much to their dismay, Ahmadi’s colleagues say they have not been contacted by anyone from the Biden administration about what happened.
“Talk to us just because our teams are now terrified,” Sonia said. “I mean, besides being afraid of the Taliban and ISIS, they are now even more afraid of the US government.”
Tucker reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Lolita Baldor contributed to this Washington report.