Shut Down the Drone War

The August 29 U.S. drone strike in Kabul that killed ten civilians, including seven children, demonstrates the bankruptcy of the war on terror. Like many other drone strikes, the strike in Kabul targeted innocent people and achieved nothing except to blow up civilians that had the misfortune to be in the vicinity. According to two recent investigative reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post, the vehicle targeted in the strike carried no explosives, and the car’s driver was Zemari Ahmadi, an aid worker who had spent the day delivering water to those in need. Hailed as a "righteous strike" by Gen. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Kabul drone strike was an atrocity that should never have happened. The Biden administration has emphasized that the US possesses "over the horizon" capabilities to continue waging war in Afghanistan even after the withdrawal of US forces from the country, but the August 29 strike shows why the US should not be using them.

The Kabul strike last month received an unusual amount of attention and scrutiny because it happened shortly after the bombing at the airport and because the Biden administration made a point of touting the strike as a success in preventing a second attack. As the subsequent investigations have proven, however, the people killed in the strike had nothing to do with the local ISIS affiliate or any other terrorist organization. As Ahmadi’s brother Emal told The New York Times, "All of them were innocent. You say he was ISIS, but he worked for the Americans."

The military has defended the strike, but all their specific claims fall apart under scrutiny. US officials claim there was a secondary explosion that proves that explosives were present in the car, but according to the investigative reports no such second explosion occurred. The objects that they believed to be explosives were water containers. Despite surveilling Ahmadi for eight hours that day, they managed to get every important detail wrong about what he was doing, who he was with, and what he was transporting.

The killing of these ten innocent people is an outrage, but the bigger outrage is that this strike is not an outlier. Things like this have been happening in Afghanistan and in other countries for years, but they have received little or no attention. When these attacks take place in remote areas, as they often do, it is difficult for investigators and journalists to determine what really happened. Because this strike occurred in a major city, there were lots of witnesses and journalists could piece together the evidence more easily. Who knows how many other innocent people have been targeted in the same way that Zemari Ahmadi was? How many people have been executed like this simply for going about their daily business? Who seriously believes that this has anything to do with the security of the United States?

Thanks to Daniel Hale’s whistleblowing, we know that US drone warfare frequently kills civilians, and in some cases most or all the victims are civilians. As Hale has said, "With drone warfare, sometimes nine out of 10 people killed are innocent." Many of the people targeted by drone strikes are not necessarily even militants, but just happen to be "military-age males." Because the military wrongly assumes that everyone killed in a strike is an enemy combatant unless proven otherwise, the number of civilians killed by US drone strikes is bound to be considerably higher than the government acknowledges.

The military has made a habit of not counting or undercounting the civilian victims of US air and drone strikes. The U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq killed many thousands of civilians, but the military acknowledged only a small number of these. Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal reported in 2017, "We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history." US strikes in Somalia have killed dozens of civilians, but US AFRICOM has acknowledged only five. The Kabul strike fits into this pattern: ten people were killed, but the military owned up only to killing the three adults.

Drone strikes have served as the background noise of US warfare for the last decade and a half, and as such they are mostly ignored until they cause enough loss of life to register briefly on the radar of Western media outlets. The drone war has continued across four administrations, and in recent years the conduct of that war and the casualties that it causes have been increasingly difficult to track. If Americans had a clearer view of who the victims of drone strikes really are, more of us would realize that the drone war needs to be shut down. It is not making the US any safer, and even if it were doing so at the margins it comes at an unacceptably high price in innocent life. No government has the right to do what ours did to these ten people in Afghanistan, and there is no justification for continuing a policy that regularly results in such slaughter.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.