US cannot atone for its drone massacres with blood money

US cannot atone for its Afghan drone massacres with blood money
5 min read
05 Nov, 2021
Compensating drone strike victims in Afghanistan is about more than money, it is also a demand for Afghan humanity and to recognize the destructive War on Terror lie that Muslim identity, in and of itself, equals terrorism, writes Khaled Beydoun.
A relative of Ezmarai Ahmadi, is pictured through the wreckage of a vehicle that was damaged in a US drone strike in the Kwaja Burga neighbourhood of Kabul on 18 September 2021. [Getty]

Another US military "mistake" left ten innocent Afghans dead, with their remains splattered and scattered in front of their homes.

On 29 August, shortly after the Biden administration announced a full-scale military evacuation from Afghanistan, Ezmarai Ahmadi and nine of his family members were killed by a Reaper Drone that fired Hellfire missiles. Ezmarai was an aid worker with a California-based charity group, but US intelligence believed he was an ISIS operative.

Seven of the ten victims were children, including three-year-old Malika. Emal, Malika's father and the brother of Ezmarai, must now step into his shoes and provide for the family of fifteen people. A nearly impossible task for a grieving man in a war-torn land, bludgeoned by two decades of a US-led war that ended the very same way it began: with the Taliban in power.

"Broken glass was strewn across the ground" of his home-turned-burial site, "and the tiny sandals of the young victims placed on the mangled chassis" of the bombed white Toyota Corolla.

"Not only in Afghanistan, but also in Yemen and Somalia, Pakistan and Iraq, the sites of pounding military airstrikes that have left entire villages decimated, and entire generations wiped from the face of the earth"

The targeting of innocents by US drone strikes is not a novel tale. In fact, it has developed into a morbid cliché or a footnote during the twenty-year-long global War on Terror. Not only in Afghanistan, but also in Yemen and Somalia, Pakistan and Iraq, the sites of pounding military airstrikes that have left entire villages decimated, and entire generations wiped from the face of the earth.

Ezmarai's untimely death reveals the most telling hallmark of a War on Terror, now, carried forward by an "over the horizon" strategy instead of US boots on the grounds: that Muslims, on account of identity alone, are presumptive terror suspects.

Despite public knowledge that Ezmarai worked with Pasadena, a California based nonprofit organization, Nutrition & Educational International, and even cooperated with US military efforts on the ground, he could not escape the stigma associated with his ethnic and spiritual identity. Dubious "intelligence" linking him with ISIS, that final Sunday in August, overshadowed the overwhelming data that Ezmarai was anything but. What the US military now calls a "tragic mistake," until recently labelled "collateral damage" or the "costs of the war on terror," has destroyed an entire family.

This time, unlike the thousands of times before, we know the victims' names, their faces, and their stories memorialized by surviving family members. Family members who demand justice by way of a formal apology and condolence payments.

Compensating the innocent victims of drone strikes is not unprecedented. However, bureaucracy – and its blurring with politics – has often undermined the funds getting into the hands of recipient families. The US drone war, since its very inception, has been cloaked in secrecy, carried forward behind a counter-terror mandate that extends carte blanche to strike Muslim-majority sites with impunity and scant evidence. As a result, the number of drone strikes over the course of the US "War on Terror" is unknown, and the scale of its victims is just as invisible as their faces and names.

For decades, the Pentagon was able to bury the facts around its ongoing drone war and its responsibility to its survivors under that blanket of secrecy, and behind its accompanying presumption that anybody Muslim is a terrorist.

But Emal Ahmadi, and other surviving members of Ezmarai's family, refused to let that happen. And weeks later, the Pentagon was forced to break away from its tradition of silence and secrecy and made a formal apology and "assurances" to recompense the surviving family members of the 29 August drone strike.

This step is more of an aberration than it is a progressive break from the War on Terror tradition. An exception only made possible by Emal and other family members persistently lobbying on mainstream and social media, activating US media outlets to bring the names of their accosted family members to newsprint, and perhaps most saliently, the timing of the drone strike converging with the reckless US pullout of Afghanistan.

These factors, in aggregate, pushed the Pentagon's hand to admit guilt. Now, in between the stages of public admission and the distribution of condolence payments to the victims' families, the only factor that will make the American military make good on its promise is continued media pressure.

"All of them have names. Like our children have names. Like your children have names," Chris Hayes of MSNBC stated of Ezmarai (43), Naser (30), Zamir (19), Faisal (15), Farzad (9), Armin (7), Binyamen (6), Sumaya (2), Ayaat (2) and Malika (2).

“They must continue to say their names, share their stories, and give a platform to surviving members in search of a dignity the two decades' long War on Terror has incessantly denied them”

"In one minute, we (lost) everything," said Yousuf Ahmadi, a surviving family member. "What pain does this apology cure?" Money, neither, will not cure nor subside the pain. But it will help a broken family push forward, and provide for living members mourning the death of fathers and uncles, daughters and sons.

The US must pay, and media outlets bear a linked responsibility to not abet the military by burying the names of innocents through neglect and under-coverage. They must continue to say their names, share their stories, and give a platform to surviving members in search of dignity the two decades' long War on Terror has incessantly denied them.

More than money, these condolence payments are a demand for Afghan humanity. A demand comes with another kind of pullout, namely, moving away from the War on Terror lie that Muslim identity, in and of itself, equals terrorism.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at the Wayne State School of Law, and a Scholar in Residence at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society's Initiative for a Representative First Amendment. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.

Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.