On Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, the U.S. military launched an attack about four miles outside of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, destroying a white Toyota sedan in a densely populated residential area. It appears that despite the Department of Defense’s (DoD) public assurances in the days following the attack, the U.S. strike may have killed no ISIS affiliates, but instead mistakenly targeted an aid worker and killed 10 innocent civilians.
We provide a list of specific questions for members of Congress, reporters, and investigators to ask about the strike.
It is an event that raises profound questions about DoD’s general policies and practices in managing the risk of civilian casualties. In particular, the Aug. 29 drone attack brings into question DoD’s target identification and verification practices and its assessments of proportionality before taking a strike and its post-strike assessments of civilian casualties and assurances given to the public. The strike also raises questions about what additional measures to protect against further civilian casualties should accompany future U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, as well as other theaters where it takes lethal strikes, especially in environments with limited on-the-ground intelligence.
As of the latest reporting, it appears that at least 10 civilians were killed, including 7 children. Those individuals include: Zemari (or Zamarai) Ahmadi – a U.S. NGO worker and the alleged target of the strike; three of Mr. Ahmadi’s children: Zamir (20), Faisal (16), and Farzad (10); Mr. Ahmadi’s relative, Ahmad Naser – a former U.S. military contractor with a pending resettlement application; three of Mr. Ahmadi’s nephews – Arwin (7), Benyamin (6), and Hayat (2); and two girls, Malika (3) and Somaya (3).
Mr. Ahmadi – the alleged target of the strike – was reportedly an employee of a U.S.-registered, California-based NGO — Nutrition and Education International — that provided food to families and communities in need. An engineer by training, Mr. Ahmadi had worked at the NGO for 14 years.
Mr. Naser was a former Afghan army officer and had previously worked as a contractor for the U.S. military (a guard and/or translator with U.S. forces). At the time that he was killed, he had a Special Immigrant Visa – for his and his family’s resettlement to the United States – pending with the government.
Other victims had worked previously with international organizations, and had approved visas to enter the United States, according to BBC News.
Immediately after the strike, U.S. Central Command (Centcom) issued a statement, announcing that U.S. forces had conducted a “self-defense” operation against an “imminent” threat by ISIS-K to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Centcom further asserted that it was “confident” that it had “successfully hit the target” and that it had “no indication” of any civilian casualties. Later that same day, Centcom issued a revised statement, saying that it was now “aware of reports of civilian casualties.” DoD has not confirmed or otherwise commented on the identities of those alleged to have been killed by the strike.
In both statements, Centcom asserted that there were “significant secondary explosions” indicating “a large amount of explosive material” inside of the targeted vehicle.
Both the New York Times and Washington Post have since conducted extraordinary in-depth reporting on the strike, including analyzing security camera footage, satellite images, witness testimonies, and evidence at the bomb site, as well as consulting extensively with explosives experts. These assessments suggest there is no evidence of significant secondary explosions or that the targeted car contained any explosives.
I. Pre-Strike Questions
General Framework and Procedures
1. As the International Committee of the Red Cross explains, the presumption of civilian status is a part of the binding laws of war. Does DoD still hold the highly anomalous view (compared to U.S. allies and globally) that this rule is not part of the binding laws of war? Does the U.S. government as a whole agree with DoD’s position?
2. What specific types of conduct would be sufficient for DoD to consider an individual an “ISIS facilitator”? Does DoD believe any “ISIS facilitator” may lawfully be targeted under the Law of Armed Conflict?
3. What is the definition of “imminence,” according to the DoD?
4. What is the DoD definition of an ISIS “safe house”?
5. Who were the most senior DoD officials who authorized or signed off on the strike?
6. Did the United States rely on the Taliban for any intelligence information in preparation for this specific strike?
Target Identification and Threat Assessment
7. What standard procedures does DoD employ to satisfy its law of armed conflict obligations regarding target identification and verification in a dynamic targeting environment? Were those procedures followed for this strike?
8. Which individual did DoD consider “an ISIS facilitator”? The driver of the vehicle? Someone else?
9. On what basis did the military make its assessment that the driver loaded explosives into the vehicle? Was it based purely on video surveillance? What was the level of confidence in the assessment at the time of the strike?
10. What was the initial piece of intelligence that led to Mr. Ahmadi or the vehicle being followed and surveillance being set up? Was it one factor or a number of factors?
11. While surveilling the vehicle, what specific actions or factors added to DoD’s assessment that Mr. Ahmadi or the vehicle were acting as an ISIS facilitator?
12. When did DoD consider the targeted individual(s) “an ISIS facilitator”? That same day, minutes or hours before the strike? or days, weeks, or months beforehand?
13. What was the level of confidence in the assessment that the targeted individual was “an ISIS facilitator”?
14. Mr. Zemari Ahmadi reportedly worked for a U.S. NGO and his employer reportedly applied for his family to receive refugee resettlement in the United States. Did DoD have that information when it made the determination that Mr. Ahmadi was tied to ISIS?
15. When and by what method did DoD first learn of the possibility that the driver was Zemari Ahmadi? Was DoD first aware of his name from the New York Times/Washington Post reporters?
16. In Mr. Kirby’s press conference on Aug. 30, he stated that he would not discuss the names of the alleged ISIS-K members that had been targeted by the strikes. Now that numerous sources have confirmed Mr. Ahmadi was the driver of the car and the supposed target, does DoD acknowledge that he was in fact the suspected ISIS-K member? Does DoD currently assert that there were other or additional suspected ISIS-K members that were killed in the attack?
17. Mr. Ahmadi’s relative, Ahmad Naser, was also reportedly a former U.S. military contractor (worked as a guard and/or translator with U.S. forces) who had applied for resettlement in the United States. Did DoD have information about Mr. Ahmadi’s family and close contacts when it made its determination that he was tied to ISIS? Did DoD have information that Naser was a former U.S. military contractor?
18. Mr. Naser’s family provided documents to reporters showing that Mr. Naser worked as a guard for the U.S. military at a base in Herat. (Other reports indicate he was a translator.) His American supervisor, Timothy Williams, stated that he did not believe Mr. Naser posed “any type of threat” to the United States. Does DoD acknowledge that Mr. Naser was a former U.S. contractor? At what point and through what means did DoD learn Mr. Naser’s identity and that he had been killed by the strike?
19. U.S. Central Command stated that the strike eliminated an “imminent ISIS-K threat to Hamid Karzai International airport” (see also subsequent statement by DoD Press Secretary John Kirby, statement by Maj. Gen. William Taylor). Did the military have intelligence that the vehicle was headed to the airport?
20. Did DoD have intelligence that there was a specific impending threat to the airport posed by this vehicle or a similar vehicle, or by individuals using this vehicle or a similar vehicle? If so, what kind of intelligence?
21. On what basis did the DoD determine there was a threat of Mr. Ahmadi’s car leaving his home courtyard for the airport when he had returned home at the end of the day? How confident was DoD about the possibility and urgency of Mr. Ahmadi’s car leaving the private household courtyard before the strike?
22. Who made the assessment that the threat was “imminent”?
23. “U.S. officials claimed they intercepted communications between the sedan and the alleged ISIS safe house, instructing it to make several stops,” the New York Times reported. Could those communications have been innocently related to Mr. Ahmadi’s boss asking Mr. Ahmadi to pick up the boss’s laptop on the way to the NGO office? Did DoD consider that possibility in its pre-strike assessment? What were the instructions about? What was in the content of the communications that was suspicious or was it just the fact of giving instructions to make several stops coming from an alleged ISIS safehouse? Were individuals who were giving instructions identified at the time? Have they been identified since the strike?
24. How soon exactly before the strike did DoD determine that one of the locations was an ISIS-K safehouse? In other words, was that a long-settled determination? With what level of confidence and on what basis was that determination made?
25. Which site was determined as the ISIS safehouse? The Nutrition and Education International office or the director’s home? Had DoD identified an exact address or a neighborhood as the location of the ISIS safehouse?
26. Did DoD identify the locations at which Mr. Ahmadi’s car was parked throughout the 8 hours of pre-strike observation? Did DoD identify one of the locations as the office of Nutrition and Education International, a U.S.-registered, and California-based NGO that delivers humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan?
27. Did the U.S. government/DoD know the location of the office of Nutrition and Education International (NEI) before the Aug 29 attack? Did the U.S. government/DoD have any contact with NEI and its staff before the Aug 29 attack? How does the U.S. government/DoD typically identify the location of humanitarian aid offices?
28. Pre-strike, what if any efforts did DoD make to identify the alleged “unknown compound” where Mr. Ahmadi may have placed containers into his car (and which ultimately turned out to be his U.S. NGO office according to reports)? What specific efforts were made to identify the building?
29. When Mr. Ahmadi’s car was parked in the driveway of the Nutrition and Education International office, DoD appears to have identified the building as an “unknown compound.” What is the U.S. explanation for DoD not identifying the locations of established humanitarian aid offices in Kabul? If the DoD had not identified the offices of humanitarian aid providers, like U.S.-registered Nutrition and Education International, would that be a failing on the part of DoD? Other agencies, such as the CIA?
30. The president of the California-based aid agency said Mr. Ahmadi’s vehicle, the white Toyota sedan, belonged to the charity. Over the course of several hours of surveillance before the strike, did the DoD know who owned the vehicle? Did the DoD make any attempt to determine who owned the vehicle before the strike?
31. What is DoD’s position on the other people in the car who travelled throughout Kabul with Mr. Ahmadi and helped fill and load containers? Were they considered ISIS affiliated according to DoD at the time of the strike?
32. What was the DoD level of confidence that the vehicle contained explosives pre-strike compared to the post-strike analysis?
33. In a press conference, Chairman Milley stated that “all of the engagement criteria were being met” in conducting the strike. Which criteria were those? Did those criteria change after the withdrawal had begun earlier in the summer?
Collateral Damage Assessment
34. Before taking the strike, what did DoD estimate would be the total number of civilian casualties killed or injured?
35. What did DoD consider would have been the acceptable level of civilian casualties before taking the strike?
36. Given that U.S. military officials believed that there were explosives in the car (and that DoD now states that those explosives caused the secondary explosions which killed many of the additional civilians), did DoD include the possibility of secondary explosions in its pre-strike analysis of potential casualties?
37. After the drone operator identified the location of the strike as a densely populated residential area and saw an adult male in the residential courtyard, U.S. officials said that the drone operator assessed with “reasonable certainty” that no women, children, or noncombatants would be killed. On what basis did the drone operator and/or tactical commander make that assessment? How was a male standing in a residential courtyard — which U.S. officials admit was not the alleged ISIS safehouse — not assessed as a noncombatant? What criteria does DoD use to determine whether adult males in residential areas are combatants/noncombatants?
39. What amount of time did it take for the drone operator and/or tactical commander to determine no women, children, or noncombatants would be killed? Was this amount of time more or less than a drone operator typically spends in a dynamic strike situation to determine no women, children, or noncombatants would be killed? How long after Mr. Ahmadi’s arriving at the compound gates did the operator decide to strike? How long did it take Mr. Ahmadi to drive from the gate of his home to the specific location the car was struck?
40. Is DoD’s position that at the moment the missile was released there were no other people in the immediate vicinity, but that by the time it reached the vehicle there were people there? How long did it take the missile from being fired to hitting the target?
41. What observations are drone operators and/or tactical commanders guided (or required) to take when assessing the risk of civilian casualties before targeting locations in densely populated residential urban areas?
42. Maj. Gen. Taylor stated that “commanders will always minimize collateral damage.” What actions specifically were taken to minimize collateral damage?
43. Before the missile hit the vehicle, Mr. Ahmadi’s children reportedly climbed into the car. Yet U.S. Central Command initially stated that “we have no indications” of civilian casualties. How do you explain this discrepancy? Did DoD see individuals climb into the vehicle shortly before the missile hit the vehicle? Did the DoD assess these individuals or presume them not to be civilians? And if so, on what basis? Did military operators not identify multiple children, including a 2-year-old and two 3-year-olds in or near the vehicle? From reports, children were in the courtyard and greeting Mr. Ahmadi from the moment he reached the gate and as he drove through the site.
44. Would that kind of information ordinarily be available during a dynamic drone strike?
45. According to the investigative news reports, from the moment Mr. Ahmadi opened the gates to drive into the courtyard, he was accompanied by family members who greeted him before parking in the courtyard with the engine still running. At what point during that journey did the drone operator and/or tactical commander decide to fire the missile? What exact time was the missile released? Where was the vehicle at that exact moment?
46. Did DoD know in advance that Mr. Ahmadi would arrive at that compound, the same location from which he left that morning? Was DoD able to carry out surveillance of the compound before Mr. Ahmadi arrived back? Did DoD actually carry out such surveillance (and, if so, starting when and for how long)? Or did operators make a rapid assessment to strike upon his unexpected arrival to the compound?
47. Pre-strike: Did DoD know in advance that the strike would likely kill Naser? Did DoD know he was a former U.S. military contractor? Did DoD know he had applied for resettlement in the United States? Did DoD assess that Naser had ties to ISIS?
II. Post-Strike Questions
Statements by DoD and General Procedures
48. Are there any statements that DoD has made to the press or the public about the strike that DoD now considers to be wrong or likely to be wrong? Which statements exactly?
49. At a Sept. 1 press conference, Chairman Milley called the strike “righteous.” Can you elaborate on what was meant by his statement?
50. Has the DoD or other U.S. agencies been working with the Taliban to carry out any of the U.S. assessments or investigations into the strike?
Initial Assessments: Target Identification
51. Does DoD accept that Mr. Zemari Ahmadi was the driver of the vehicle killed in the U.S. strike?
52. If yes, when did DoD identify Mr. Zemari Ahmadi as the driver of the vehicle who was killed in the U.S. strike? And did DoD collect other information about Mr. Ahmadi’s background, including his status as an employee of the U.S.-based NGO and/or his family’s status as applicants for refugee resettlement in the U.S.?
53. Given what has now been made public and reported by the New York Times and Washington Post, does DoD still assert that they killed any ISIS-K members/affiliates in this strike?
54. The president of the California-based aid agency said Mr. Ahmadi’s vehicle, the white Toyota sedan, belonged to the charity. Does the DoD know who owned the vehicle? In any of its post strike assessments, did the DoD make any attempt to determine who owned the vehicle?
55. What is DoD’s position on other people in the car who travelled throughout Kabul with Ahmadi and helped fill and load containers? What’s the current post-strike assessment of their identity and status?
Initial Assessments: Collateral Damage/Civilian Casualty Assessment
56. Does DoD acknowledge that the seven named children were killed that day?
57. What does DoD currently acknowledge as the official death count from the strike? What does DoD currently acknowledge as the official civilian death count?
58. In this case, has DoD used its standard rule that places the burden on those who allege civilian casualties and require proof by a preponderance of evidence (more than 50% likelihood) that civilians were killed before DoD will even consider the reports credible for the purpose of investigation?
59. What observations of the strike location did DoD or other agencies carry out post-strike? For how long were observations of the location carried out? What methods were used, other than aerial surveillance? Was new surveillance conducted or only the surveillance available in the immediate period following the strike?
Initial Assessments: Significant Secondary Explosions
60. On Aug. 30, Pentagon Press Secretary Kirby said the DoD is “certain” there were secondary explosions from the strike. Does DoD currently have the same level of certainty today? If yes: How does the DoD maintain the same level of certainty given all the contradictory evidence subsequently provided by deeply investigated news reports?
“Experts who examined photos and videos pointed out that, although there was clear evidence of a missile strike and subsequent vehicle fire, there were no collapsed or blown-out walls, no destroyed vegetation, and only one dent in the entrance gate, indicating a single shock wave.” (New York Times report)
“The Washington Post provided imagery of the damage caused by the strike and U.S. military assessments of the operation to experts, including a physicist and former bomb technicians, and spoke to the nonprofit that employed the driver targeted in the operation. Taken together, their assessments suggest there is no evidence the car contained explosives; two experts said evidence pointed to an ignition of fuel tank vapors as the potential cause of the second blas.” (Washington Post report)
61. Does DoD assert that the analyses by Washington Post and NY Times explosives experts in the aftermath of the strike are incorrect?
62. Who within DoD (name and position) reported there were significant secondary explosions up the chain of command? Was there any internal disagreement or dispute on this question?
If no: If there was no internal dispute, is there a concern that no one within DoD raised concerns or has any disagreement about the veracity of the initial statement given the extensive number of external experts who have disputed the likelihood of substantial secondary explosions?
63. What evidence did DoD rely on to determine that there were significant secondary explosions from explosives located in the vehicle struck by the U.S. drone?
Background: Captain Bill Urban, spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, for example, said, “We are confident we successfully hit the target. Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.” (See also statement by Chairman Milley, statement by Maj. Gen. William Taylor)
64. In the aftermath of the strike, how much of DoD’s confidence that the strike eliminated a threat to the Kabul airport is based on the claim that there were “significant secondary explosions”?
65. Especially bearing in mind Centcom’s and DoD’s statements that there were significant secondary explosions, was it premature for Centcom to quickly report there was no indication of civilian casualties?
66. In a press conference, Chairman Milley stated, “As we always do on all of these things, we initiated an investigation.” Exactly what type of investigation has been initiated?
67. Is the current DoD investigation to determine the credibility of the civilian casualty allegations, or has the DoD already determined the allegations credible and proceeded to a more fulsome investigation?
68. What does it say about DoD’s commitment to finding out the truth that it appeared to have conducted a post-strike analysis that was extremely short of what the NYT and Post did, such as surveying the damage, speaking to explosives experts, and obtaining firsthand reports from neighbors and family members?
69. After the strike, what, if any, specific efforts did DoD make to identify what DoD called an “unknown compound” where Mr. Ahmadi may have placed containers into his car (and which ultimately turned out to be his NGO office according to the investigative news reports)?
70. Will DoD’s investigation include the testimonies of Mr. Ahmadi’s family members, colleagues, and neighborhood witnesses? Has DoD already reached out to any of those individuals, and if so, when did DoD do so? If not, why not? What weight will be given to the testimonies of these witnesses?
71. “Neighbors and an Afghan health official confirmed that bodies of children were removed from the site,” the New York Times reported. Has the DoD attempted to communicate with the Afghan health officials about such information, and if so, when did DoD start to do so? If not, will DoD do so in future?
72. Who is conducting the investigation and do those individuals have any relationship to the personnel and units who conducted the strike? Do they have any relationship to the personnel and units who conducted the initial post-strike assessments and civilian casualty reporting? Note: NPR reported that Centcom was gathering intelligence and conducting the investigation. Is that correct? Are any other agencies or personnel involved?
73. Has DoD considered amends or reparations to the family at this point given that DoD now acknowledges at least three civilians were killed? If DoD determines that only innocent civilians were killed in the strike, will DoD commit to making a public apology to the families of those killed and making (further) amends or reparations?
74. Under what circumstances will the DoD promise to pay amends or make a formal apology?
75. The Ahmadi family disputes that Mr. Ahmadi’s car was carrying explosives and is demanding proof: “They have to give us answers. Is our blood so worthless, we don’t even get an explanation?” Ramal Ahmadi, the brother of Zemari Ahmadi, asked. What specific action and relief is the U.S. government/DoD committed to provide to the Ahmadi family, if it determines that the Aug. 29 strike killed innocent civilians?
76. If DoD’s investigation finds that proper safeguards and procedures were not implemented or followed prior to or following this strike, will disciplinary actions be considered against those involved? How will those decisions be made? Will information about such disciplinary actions be made available to the public? Will DoD promise to distinguish in its public reporting between non-punitive administration actions (such as retraining) and punitive actions? Under what circumstances, will DoD consider whether violations of the UCMJ occured?
77. At a press conference on Sept. 1, Chairman Milley seemed to imply that his comments on the strike might bias the ongoing investigation. He said: “We believe that the procedures at this point — I don’t want to influence the outcome of an investigation — but at this point, we think that the procedures were correctly followed and it was a righteous strike.” Was Chairman Milley’s commentary on the ongoing investigation appropriate at that time?
78. When asked for comment on the strike, U.S. Centcom spokesperson, Capt. Bill Urban, stated that he could not comment on the strike because of the ongoing investigation. Given Chairman Milley’s comments on the ongoing investigation already, why is Capt. Urban unable to comment?
79. If DoD officials are unable or unwilling to answer the above questions regarding the ongoing investigation –
a. What will you comment on? Will you comment at least on the scope and organization of the investigation itself?
b. DoD has already made several statements when it suited and appeared favorable to the Department (By Chairman Milley, by Captain Bill Urban, spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, by DoD Press Secretary John Kirby, by Maj. Gen. William Taylor), including after the investigation began. Why will DoD not answer these questions now? Isn’t that arbitrary and self-serving? On what basis does DoD assert that those statements were permissible and appropriate, but responding to these questions about the investigation are not?
80. What, if any, protocols or official guidance describes what public declarations can be made by DoD leadership in the midst of an ongoing internal investigation? Will you make any such guidance public?
81. Will DoD promise to make public any report of findings from the investigation?
82. When does DoD expect to have results of this investigation of the strike? Note that both the Washington Post and NY Times both completed deeply researched investigative reports in under two weeks.
83. Will DoD commit to releasing the report far enough in advance of any press conference about the report so that reporters can be substantively prepared to ask informed questions? (unlike what happened with the 2016 DoD release of the DoD report of the U.S. military strike on the Kunduz hospital).
84. Will DoD commit to releasing any excerpts of the report to all Pentagon and other reporters at the same time rather than giving select reporters such advanced information?
III. Questions for Future Operations
85. In a press conference, Chairman Milley said, following the strike, that “the procedures were correctly followed and it was a righteous strike.” If the strike is found to have killed innocent civilians, will DoD commit to reviewing those procedures?
86. In a press conference, Chairman Milley stated that “all of the engagement criteria were being met” in conducting the strike. Are those same engagement criteria still in place? Is there any plan to change those engagement criteria in the near future?
87. Military officials said they deemed Mr. Ahmadi to be suspicious because of his observed activities on the day of the strike. If Mr. Ahmadi’s activities are found to be the daily activities of an Afghan humanitarian aid worker, what (if any) steps will be taken to review and revise DoD’s policy and practice for assessing suspicious activities?
88. The New York Times and Washington Post investigations identified Mr. Ahmadi’s activities — which U.S. military officials used to deem him suspicious — to be the daily activities of a humanitarian aid worker. If this is true, will DoD commit to reviewing how diversity and inclusion training provided to the armed forces addresses implicit bias around gender, race, and ethnicity?
89. Will DoD commit to instituting new policies, practices, and procedures that prevent the daily activities of Afghan civilian men, as well as civilian men in other theaters of operations, from being interpreted as suspicious activities by U.S. military officials?
90. Douglas London, who served as the CIA’s counterterrorism chief overseeing the region before retiring in 2019, said “the strike and resulting deaths ‘really illustrates our handicap by having no presence on the ground to collect the best quality and most timely intelligence.’” Does DoD accept that there is an increased risk of civilian casualties during drone strikes due to the lack of such on-the-ground intelligence? If so, what steps will DoD commit to take to address the increased risk of civilian casualties through its military operations?
91. Following the U.S. withdrawal, will the US government/DoD consider Afghanistan outside areas of active hostilities such that heightened standards for targeting and protection of civilian casualties apply?
Background: For latest reporting, see Charlie Savage, Afghanistan Collapse and Strikes in Somalia Raise Snags for Drone Warfare Rules, New York Times Aug. 28, 2021
92. What steps is the U.S. government or DoD taking to offer protection to Mr. Ahmadi’s remaining family members and colleagues at NEI, now that they may face an increased risk of violence due to being identified with an American organization through reporting on the U.S. drone attack?
93. Is there any update on Mr. Ahmadi’s family’s resettlement application?