KABUL, Afghanistan – 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.
Signs have been mounting that the U.S. military may have targeted the wrong man in the Aug. 29 strike in Kabul, with devastating consequences, killing seven children and two other adults from his family. The Pentagon says it is further investigating the strike, but it has no way to do so on the ground in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, severely limiting its ability to gather evidence.
Accounts from the family, documents from colleagues seen by The Associated Press, and the scene at the family home – where Zemerai Ahmadi's car was struck by a Hellfire missile just as he pulled into the driveway – all seem to sharply contradict the accounts by the U.S. military. Instead, they paint the picture of a family that had worked for Americans and were trying to gain visas to the United States, fearing for their lives under the Taliban.
At the home, the mangled, incinerated Toyota Corolla remains in the driveway. But there are no signs of large secondary blasts the Pentagon said were caused by explosives hidden in the car trunk. In the tightly cramped, walled compound, the house is undamaged except for broken glass, even a badly built wooden balcony remains in place. A brick wall immediately adjacent to the car stands intact. Trees and foliage close to the car are not burned or torn.
The family wants the United States to hear their side of the story and see the facts on the ground.
“We just want that they come here. See what they did. Talk to us. Give us the proof,” Emal Ahmadi, Zemerai's younger brother, said of the U.S. military. Near 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 she was killed in the strike.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged he did not know if the man targeted in the strike was an IS operative or an aid worker. “I don't know because we're reviewing it,” he said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
The strike was carried out in the final days of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, as American troops were carrying out evacuations at Kabul's airport. Only days earlier, an IS suicide bombers at the airport killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. servicemembers. The Pentagon says the strike prevented another IS attack at the airport. Officials said the U.S. military had been observing the car for hours as it drove and saw people loading explosives into the back.