US pledges to pay family of those killed in botched Kabul drone strike

People gather near remnants of a vehicle destroyed by a US drone strike in Kabul on Aug 30, 2021.
People gather near remnants of a vehicle destroyed by a US drone strike in Kabul on Aug 30, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Pentagon offered unspecified condolence payments this week to the family of the 10 civilians, including seven children, who the military has acknowledged were mistakenly killed on Aug 29 in the last American drone strike before US troops withdrew from Afghanistan.

In a statement released late Friday (Oct 15), the Pentagon also said it was working with the State Department to help surviving members of the family relocate to the United States.

The offers were made in a virtual meeting on Thursday between Dr Colin Kahl, under secretary of defence for policy, and Mr Steven Kwon, founder and president of Nutrition & Education International, the aid organisation that employed Mr Zemari Ahmadi, the driver of a white Toyota sedan that was struck by the American drone.

Senior Defence Department officials and military commanders conceded last month that Mr Ahmadi had nothing to do with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), contrary to what military officials had previously asserted.

Mr 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 ISIS safe house in Kabul, an initial link that led military analysts to make one misjudgment after another while tracking Mr Ahmadi's movements in the sedan for the next eight hours.

"Dr Kahl noted that the strike was a tragic mistake and that Mr Zemari Ahmadi and others who were killed were innocent victims who bore no blame and were not affiliated with ISIS-K or threats to US forces," said the statement from Mr John Kirby, the Defence Department's chief spokesperson.

Mr Kirby said Mr Kwon had recounted Mr Ahmadi's work with the aid group over many years as an electrical engineer, "providing care and lifesaving assistance for people facing high mortality rates in Afghanistan."

The Pentagon statement came after Mr Ahmadi's family members in Kabul complained that US officials had not contacted them about relocating to the United States or offering condolence payments.

Pentagon officials said Friday that no specific amount for condolence payments was discussed in Thursday's meeting, but that it would be in future discussions between the department and the aid organisation and its lawyers, who are acting on behalf of the family in Afghanistan.

Congress has authorised the Pentagon to pay up to US$3 million (S$4.05 million) a year for payments to compensate for property damage, personal injury or deaths related to the actions of US armed forces, as well as for "hero payments" to the family members of local allied forces, such as Afghan or Iraqi troops fighting Al-Qaeda or ISIS.

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

Almost everything senior defence officials asserted in the hours, days and weeks after the drone strike turned out to be false.

The explosives 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 neighbourhood where the attack took place was probably a propane or gas tank, officials said.

General Kenneth McKenzie Jr, head of Central Command, said in a news conference last month that the strike was carried out "in the profound belief" that ISIS was about to attack Hamid Karzai International Airport, as the organisation had done three days earlier, killing about 170 civilians and 13 US troops.

The acknowledgement 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.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a review of the military's inquiry into the drone strike to determine, among other issues, who should be held accountable and "the degree to which strike authorities, procedures and processes need to be altered in the future."