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U.S. Military Admits A Kabul Drone Strike Hit Civilian Vehicle, Not ISIS

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Pentagon has admitted that a drone strike in Kabul was a mistake that killed innocent civilians. Ten people, including seven children, were killed on August 29 in the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The military had initially said they'd hit an ISIS vehicle packed with explosives. But yesterday, they admitted that, as The New York Times had reported, the Hellfire missile struck a vehicle driven by Zemerai Ahmadi, an employee at an American humanitarian organization. We're joined now by Priyanka Motaparthy, who is director of the Project on Armed Conflict, Counterterrorism and Human Rights at Columbia Law School. Thank you so much for being with us.

PRIYANKA MOTAPARTHY: Thank you so much, Scott.

SIMON: I think we have to ask with all the cutting-edge technology, all the intelligence, the chain of command, how do mistakes like this happen?

MOTAPARTHY: You know, I think that is the question that all of us, as Americans, as a public need to be asking. That is not a question that I, as even an expert who follows these types of incidents, can answer. That is a question for the U.S. military to answer to the American people. And I very much hope that they will be doing so.

Will there be a review of all the other incidents where there's credible information, credible evidence of civilian harm? Will this result in some kind of greater scrutiny within the U.S. military of how they review their intelligence and how they take their strikes that take human life? I very much think that it should.

SIMON: And to be clear, it's not isolated, is it? You've looked into this over the years.

MOTAPARTHY: The strike is, in one sense, very different from other strikes that I have looked at in the sense that we have. And just astonishing apology from our Secretary of Defense, Secretary Austin, acknowledging that a mistake has been made. But in another sense, the strike is no different than so many other drone strikes that we've seen not only in Afghanistan but in countries like Yemen and in countries like Somalia. In so many of those incidents as well, we have credible independent sources, human rights investigators, journalists who've gone to these fights, who visited families, who've interviewed survivors and witnesses to these incidents. And they found stories of humans very much like Mr. Ahmadi, people who worked for charities, people who delivered food or vital nutrition packets, who delivered water to people in some of these other countries or, you know, other individuals who served in forces allied with the U.S. government.

SIMON: What do you know about the intelligence that's used for these strikes?

MOTAPARTHY: So what we know is that the primary source of U.S. intelligence in many of these cases is taken from above, drones that are patrolling areas, perhaps monitoring vehicles. We understand that, in this case, Mr. Ahmadi's vehicle was monitored from above the day of the strike. And so it's a very remote perspective. And this may be pieced together with other types of intelligence, like signals intelligence taken from, you know, patchy cellphone signals or other intercepted communications. And yet we know certainly in this case that there was flawed intelligence that a mistake was made. And we know several other cases where the U.S. government has also admitted mistakes.

The drone strike that happened on August 29 happened in Kabul. They were very experienced war correspondents there at the time. They were able to go to the home that was affected the day after the strike. They were able to interview the family immediately after it happened, put together surveillance footage, forensic analysis of weapons remnants. We do not have that same level of access and that same level of scrutiny in places like Lower Shabelle in Somalia or in remote villages in Yemen, where many of these incidents take place.

SIMON: Has the United States decided to pursue war principally through the use of drones rather than endanger its own personnel? And what are the implications of that?

MOTAPARTHY: I think that the Biden administration raised hopes early on in its administration by announcing a review of its counterterrorism programs and indeed by pausing the use of these strikes. And I think many of us are still hopeful that that review will result in positive reforms. President Biden promised to end the forever wars. And if drone strikes continue, have the forever wars ended for the people of Afghanistan? Have they ended for the people of Yemen? Have they ended for the people of Somalia? Have they ended for other people around the world who may be going about their daily lives, living and working as civilians, when out of nowhere, a U.S. drone strike comes and wreaks devastation on their family? I do not think we can say that that's a successful policy.

SIMON: Priyanka Motaparthy at Columbia Law School, thank you so much for being with us.

MOTAPARTHY: Thank you so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.