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Drone strike a terrible mistake

The Ahmadi family members pray Sept. 13 at

The Ahmadi family members pray Sept. 13 at the cemetery next to family graves of family members killed by a U.S. drone strike, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: AP/Bernat Armangue

It’s tempting to paint the last missile strike launched by the United States before our troops withdrew from Afghanistan as a metaphor for the entire 20-year war.

But the 10 innocent civilians killed, seven of them children, are not a metaphor. They include Zemari Ahmadi, 43, and his children Zamir, 20, Faisal, 16, and Farzad, 10. Ahmadi’s cousin, Naser, 30, and Naser’s three children, Arwin, 7, Benjamin, 6, and Hayat, a toddler, were also killed. So were Ahmadi's 3-year-old nieces, Malika and Somaya.

They were killed because faulty intelligence convinced the United States that Zemari Ahmadi was a terrorist planning to set off a car bomb at the Kabul airport in a Toyota Corolla.

But Ahmadi was an electrical engineer working for a California-based humanitarian aid group, seeking refugee resettlement in the United States, running errands for his boss. The "explosives" were canisters of water. The intelligence that led to the missile being launched from a drone was false.

And until the New York Times reported discrepancies in the official account from realities on the ground, the U.S. military claimed that the bombing was "a righteous strike," three civilians at most had died, and a second, larger explosion after the strike proved the car was full of explosives.

There was no second, huge explosion; it was a nearby propane tank. The military now admits Ahmadi was not a terrorist and every significant piece of intelligence used to finger him was flawed.

The plan to fight terrorism in Afghanistan, now that our forces have left, relies heavily on such drone strikes, and intelligence gathered with no ground operation. Some U.S. officials say that may mean more deadly mistakes, which already are not terribly rare. In 2015, the United States misidentified a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan as a Taliban-controlled government building and bombed it, even though it was in fact on a no-strike list. At least 42 people were killed.

In each case, the main culprit was human error. Where there are humans, there is error.

There have been no accusations that the Aug. 29 killings were anything other than a mistake. The strike was carried out to prevent what intelligence indicated was another planned bombing at the airport, days after a suicide bomber killed more than 140 people at the airport, including 13 American service members.

It’s entirely legitimate to try to prevent such attacks. It’s inexcusable to do so with shoddy intelligence, and misrepresent it afterward. Killing 10 innocent people might have done more to endanger the U.S. by potentially fueling martyrdom than it did to make it safer.

This bombing is not a metaphor for our Afghan war but it is an apt conclusion, and a reminder that our epilogue in that nation can't be allowed to create justifications for new waves of terrorists to attack the United States.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.