Afghan Family Says Errant U.S. Missile Killed 10, Including 7 Children

Relatives, friends and colleagues of Zemari Ahmadi angrily dismissed any suggestion he had ties to ISIS-K. The U.S. military is investigating.

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KABUL — Zemari Ahmadi was coming home Sunday evening, having dropped off colleagues from the local office of an American aid group where he worked, relatives and colleagues said in interviews Monday.

As he pulled into the narrow street where he lived with his three brothers and their families, many of their children, seeing his white Toyota Corolla, rushed out to greet him, family members said. Some clambered onto the car in the street, one jumped in while others gathered in the narrow courtyard of the compound as he pulled in.

It was then, friends and family say, that the vehicle was hit with a missile which they believe was fired by an American drone, blowing out doors and windows in the courtyard, spraying shrapnel, and killing 10 people, seven of them children.

Mr. Ahmadi’s daughter, Samia Ahmadi, 21, was in a room adjoining the courtyard when she was struck by the blast wave. “At first I thought it was the Taliban,” she said.

The Times could not independently verify whether an American missile strike killed Mr. Ahmadi and the others. Nor was it clear whether Mr. Ahmadi’s car was the Americans’ actual target.

The Pentagon acknowledged the possibility that Afghan civilians had been killed in the drone strike, but suggested that any civilian deaths had resulted from the detonation of explosives in the vehicle that was targeted.

“We’re not in a position to dispute it,” John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said Monday about reports of civilian casualties. He repeated earlier Pentagon statements that the military was investigating a strike on a vehicle two miles from Hamid Karzai International Airport. But it was unclear whether this was the same as the incident involving Mr. Ahmadi’s vehicle.

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Mr. Ahmadi’s mangled car in the courtyard of their home in Kabul on Monday. U.S. officials say they struck an ISIS-K vehicle. His family says it was the car he used to deliver food to refugee camps. Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

In a news conference on Monday in Washington, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, did not address the circumstances surrounding the drone strike except to say that it dealt ISIS Khorasan a crushing blow when the group was hoping to deliver one last attack before the U.S. withdrawal.

The giant American airlift that carried tens of thousands of Afghans to safety came to an end on Monday, the Pentagon announced, but left tens of thousands more behind. And as the last planes departed, taking the last American troops with them, the American military presence in Afghanistan vanished after 20 harrowing years.

The attack on Sunday was carried out in a tense atmosphere, following the suicide bombing at the airport that killed at least 170 civilians and 13 U.S. service members.

With the Biden administration coming under withering criticism for its planning and execution of the evacuation of tens of thousands of American citizens and Afghans, the pressure to avoid a second attack was intense. The U.S. military said Saturday that it had killed the planner of that bombing in a different drone strike on Friday night.

Family members who witnessed the explosion said that Mr. Ahmadi and several of the children were killed inside his car; others were fatally wounded in rooms alongside the courtyard. The family’s SUV, parked next to the Corolla in the tight confines of the courtyard, was set on fire, while smoke filled the house.

Ms. Ahmadi, the driver’s daughter, staggered outside, choking, and saw the dismembered bodies of her siblings and relatives. “I saw the whole scene,” she said.

An Afghan health official confirmed that local hospitals received several bodies transferred by ambulance from the house, including those of three children. Later on Monday afternoon, a funeral was held in Kabul with the victims’ 10 coffins, several of them closed because the bodies were so disfigured.

Among the victims was her cousin and fiance, Ahmad Naser, 30, a former army officer and contractor with the U.S. military who had come from Herat, in western Afghanistan, in hopes of being evacuated from Kabul.

“His name was Naser,” she cried. “May I die in the name of Naser, may I become ashes in the name of Naser.”

On Monday morning a crowd had gathered in the narrow lane outside Mr. Ahmadi’s house, located in a dense residential area over a mile west of the airport. As a C-17 cargo jet roared overhead, local residents gaped at the twisted remnants of his car and the impact crater from the blast. Dried blood was smeared on the charred hood.

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Relatives and neighbors inspect damage in the cramped courtyard of a house in Kabul from what they said was a U.S. drone strike Sunday.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

During the course of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military was frequently accused by Afghans of carrying out drone strikes based on faulty intelligence, killing scores of civilians. Though the circumstances were often murky, the incidents strained ties with the Afghan government and helped build support for the Taliban.

Neighbors, colleagues and relatives of Mr. Ahmadi, a technical engineer with Nutrition and Education International, a charity based in Pasadena, Calif., insisted angrily that the same injustice had just been visited on their relatives.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there.

“How was he ISIS? Look at this,” said Najib, a cousin of Mr. Ahmadi who would give only his first name for fear of retribution, angrily dismissing the U.S. military’s account of the attack. “They lied about us in the media.”

Neither Mr. Ahmadi nor any of his family members were connected to ISIS or any other terrorist group, they said, adding that many in the family had worked for the Afghan security forces.

The president of the charity group, Steven Kwon, said that Mr. Ahmadi was a compassionate man and “well respected by his colleagues,” adding: “Just yesterday, he prepared and delivered soy-based meals to hungry women and children at local refugee camps in Kabul.”

Family members provided documents showing his long employment with Nutrition and Education International, and the application of his nephew, Mr. Naser, for a Special Immigrant Visa, based on his service as a guard at the U.S. military’s Camp Lawton, in Herat.

“The grave danger that he and his family faced was directly linked to his commitment to American and NATO forces,” Timothy Williams, Mr. Naser’s American supervisor, wrote on Aug. 14 in support of the application. “To the best of my knowledge, Ahmad Naser does not pose any type of threat to the safety or security of the United States and its citizens.”

Family members also said there was no evidence of more powerful explosions within the small courtyard. Although the doors and windows of the house had been blown out, they said, it remained structurally intact. The mud and brick wall next to Mr. Ahmadi’s vehicle was still standing.

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Friends, relatives and colleagues of Mr. Ahmadi insist he could not possibly have had links to ISIS-Khorasan. Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“Zemari was my brother, but he was like my father,” said Emal Ahmadi, whose 2-year-old daughter Malika was killed in the strike. He said that Mr. Ahmadi was the breadwinner for the families of all four brothers. “I’m jobless, but he supported me.”

At a house nearby, a group of female relatives of the victims had gathered, some standing in bewilderment, others wailing aloud. Anissa Ahmadi, Zemari Ahmadi’s wife, who lost four of her children in the explosion in addition to her husband, sat in a state of shock, unable to speak above a whisper. Her daughter Samia, beside her, gave voice to the grief and anger many felt.

“America used us to defend itself, and now they’ve destroyed Afghanistan,” she said. “Whoever dropped this bomb on our family, may God punish you.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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