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  • The San Juan Daily Star

Surviving relatives of US drone strike victims remain stranded in Afghanistan

Emal Ahmadi, whose brother Zemari Ahmadi was killed in the final U.S. drone strike before American troops withdrew from Afghanistan, sits at a home in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 18, 2021.

By Eric Schmitt

Soon after the U.S. military mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven children, last August in the final U.S. drone strike before American troops withdrew from Afghanistan, the Biden administration pledged to help surviving members of the family relocate to the United States for their safety.

Nearly a year later, fewer than a dozen of the 144 family members have been resettled in the United States and 32 people remain trapped in Afghanistan with little hope of getting out soon, advocates for the family said Monday. The rest have been stuck for months in a diplomatic limbo after being taken to three countries to await screening to enter the United States.

The odyssey of the family members of Zemari Ahmadi, the driver of a white Toyota sedan that was struck by the American drone, and others employed by Ahmadi’s aid organization in Afghanistan is a saga of passport problems, bureaucratic red tape and Taliban capriciousness. On one day in June, for instance, 43 family members traveling overland were allowed to cross into Pakistan. The very next day, a similar group was turned back at the border after the Taliban imposed new travel-document rules.

Lawyers for the family members praised the efforts of the Pentagon and the State Department to help evacuate their clients, and said they had refrained from commenting publicly until now to protect their clients’ safety. But they said much more needed to be done and were now breaking their silence.

“As the anniversary of the strike approaches, the public needs to know that the government is failing to meet its promises, and our clients’ lives are in the United States’ hands,” said Brett Max Kaufman, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing members of Ahmadi’s family as well as other employees of Nutrition & Education International, Ahmadi’s aid organization in Afghanistan.

Ahmadi’s family members and other employees of the aid organization the U.S. government agreed to evacuate are a small subset of the more than 120,000 Afghans who were airlifted after the Taliban seized control of the country last August, and the thousands who sought to flee but have so far failed.

Officials said the prospects for extracting the last 32 family members hiding in Afghanistan became more complicated after the CIA two weeks ago killed Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of al-Qaida, while he was hiding out in a house in a crowded section of the Taliban-controlled Afghan capital.

“I remain increasingly scared for the people — including Zemari’s family members and our NEI colleagues — who are still stuck in Afghanistan without any certainty or timeline to get out,” Steven Kwon, the founder and president of Nutrition & Education International, said in a statement.

“The U.S. government must keep its promise and get all those affected by its mistaken drone strike to safety before it’s too late,” Kwon said.

Pentagon officials said they had been working for months along with State Department and White House colleagues to evacuate the family members and other employees of the aid organization, despite no longer having any U.S. military or diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.

“The Department of Defense, in coordination with other U.S. government departments and agencies, continues to take steps to respond to the Aug. 29, 2021, airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan,” Todd Breasseale, the acting Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement. “To protect the privacy of the family members, as well as to help protect their safety and security, we are not able to provide more information regarding these efforts at this time.”

Senior Defense Department officials and military commanders said soon after the Aug. 29 drone strike that Ahmadi had nothing to do with the Islamic State group, contrary to what military officials had previously asserted. Ahmadi’s only connection to the terrorist group appeared to be a fleeting and innocuous interaction with people in what the military believed was an Islamic State group safe house in Kabul, an initial link that led military analysts to make one misjudgment after another while tracking Ahmadi’s movements in the sedan for the next eight hours.

In addition to resettlement in the United States, the Pentagon has offered unspecified condolence payments to family members. Administration officials and lawyers for the family said negotiations over any payments have been suspended until all family members have been safely evacuated from Afghanistan.

Congress has authorized the Pentagon to pay up to $3 million a year for payments to compensate for property damage, personal injury or deaths related to the actions of U.S. armed forces, as well as for “hero payments” to the family members of local allied forces, such as Afghan or Iraqi troops fighting al-Qaida or the Islamic State group.

Condolence payments for deaths caused by the U.S. military have varied widely in recent years. In the 2019 fiscal year, for instance, the Pentagon offered 71 such payments — ranging from $131 to $35,000 — in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Almost everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, days and weeks after the Aug. 29 drone strike turned out to be false. The explosives that the military claimed were loaded in the trunk of the sedan struck by the drone’s Hellfire missile were probably water bottles, and a secondary explosion in the courtyard in the densely populated Kabul neighborhood where the attack took place was probably a propane or gas tank, officials said.

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command at the time, said in a news conference last September that the strike was carried out “in the profound belief” that the Islamic State group was about to attack Hamid Karzai International Airport, as the organization had done three days earlier, killing about 170 civilians and 13 U.S. troops.

The acknowledgment of the mistaken strike came a week after a New York Times investigation of video evidence challenged assertions by the military that it had struck a vehicle carrying explosives meant for the airport.

Several weeks later, in November, Colin H. Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, offered the condolence payments and the help resettling to Kwon in a virtual meeting.

One of the first matters was to define the size of the group to receive the assistance. One group included immediate and extended family members of Ahmadi. A second group was made up of other employees of the aid organization and some of their family members. In all, 144 people — including a significant number of children — were identified as warranting assistance to leave the country for their safety, said Kaufman, the ACLU lawyer.

With no American personnel remaining in Afghanistan, the State Department hired a contractor to help feed, clothe and shelter the family members while U.S. officials sought to arrange flights or other means for the Afghans to leave the country.

The group faced stumbling blocks right away. Many of the individuals had no passports or other travel documents that the Taliban and receiving countries would accept. Commercial flights in and out of the country were sporadic. Two elderly relatives died during the waiting period.

But slowly, the line of family members began to move. Most flew directly to one of three countries — Albania, Kosovo or Qatar — where, like many other Afghan refugees, they received medical care and security processing as refugees. Some joined a convoy and drove out of the country into Pakistan, and on to one of the transit countries.

The first family members arrived in the United States in May, with others coming in July. In all, 11 family members have resettled in three states, which Kaufman did not identify for security reasons.

“That some members of Zemari’s family have begun to pick up the pieces of their lives with a new start in America is undoubtedly good news,” Kaufman said. “But the bottom line is that the government has not done enough, and many of our clients remain in danger.”

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