It was the final U.S. drone strike before the withdrawal from Afghanistan — a tragic coda that for many here encapsulates the legacy of America’s nearly 20-year presence in their country.
In the aftermath, the Pentagon acknowledged its killing of 10 civilians — seven of them children — had been a mistake, a result of faulty intelligence that targeted 43-year-old Zemari Ahmadi — a longtime aid worker — as a terrorist with Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan.
None of the strike’s planners were held accountable, but the Biden administration pledged to evacuate Ahmadi’s extended family and his colleagues — a total of 144 people — and resettle them in the United States.
But a year later, more than two dozen of them remain stuck in Afghanistan, stalled by bureaucratic wrangling, the vagaries of international diplomacy and the obduracy of the Taliban government.
“I’m surprised we’re still here,” said Ahmadi’s widow, Anisa, 50. “I feel that it’s all just talking and no action. Yes, the others have been taken abroad, but we should have been a priority. We’ve gone through so much.”
The situation is even worse for the hundreds of thousands more Afghans who are also trying to get out but whose cases have received far less attention. Critics say that the U.S. evacuation program has failed to live up to its promise.
Many Afghans left behind
“We left behind the vast majority of the Afghans we were attempting to evacuate, and haven’t really lifted a finger helping them get to safety,” said Matt Zeller, a former CIA analyst and military veteran who co-founded the nonprofit No One Left Behind, which aims to help Afghans and Iraqi interpreters and employees who worked with the Americans.
In two weeks last August, the U.S. and its allies evacuated more than 122,000 people from Afghanistan, with 76,000 sent for immediate resettlement to the United States, according to aid groups. The intensity of that airlift — one of the largest in history — stands in sharp contrast to the torpid pace of evacuations after the withdrawal.
In the last year, the United States has awarded 8,000 special immigrant visas, which are for U.S.-allied forces and their dependents. An additional 160,000 qualified applicants are still waiting, according to a recent report by the Assn. of Wartime Allies, a veteran-led advocacy group.
A total of 66,000 people have applied for humanitarian parole — which is not a visa but facilitates urgent resettlement — since July 2021, with each paying $575, a small fortune in Afghanistan. Just 123 have been approved.
“At this rate, it will take over 18 years to successfully get our Afghan allies out, almost as long as the war in Afghanistan,” Zeller said.
He said his anger was compounded by the contrast with Ukrainian resettlement programs, which had accepted more than 100,000 people since the war started in February.
“I now know what can be done for people who are in a war zone,” he said. “They’ve done it for Ukrainians who had their application fees waived, the background investigations that are supposed to be done to them waived.”
Jamil, a 29-year-old who gave only his second name because he feared for his safety, presumably would be one of the Afghans eligible for resettlement.
He was employed by two nonprofits contracted by the U.S.; his father worked with the U.S.-backed government as part of a council of clerics issuing religious edicts discouraging people from working with the Taliban; and three of his brothers were officers in the army or national police, including one who was killed in the Aug. 29, 2021, bombing attack at the airport.
Now he moves every few months and uses a basic cellphone that can’t store any incriminating photos or links to his social media accounts. He has no job and lives on dwindling savings. In the meantime, he applied for the priority and special immigrant visas and tried to evacuate to other countries, with no success.
“Many times the Americans committed to helping the Afghan people and they just left us to these terrorists,” he said.
A life-changing day
The details of Aug. 29, 2021, remain vivid for many of the survivors of the drone attack that killed Ahmadi and much of his family.
That evening, just before he reached home, two of his older daughters were playing in a room with some of their younger siblings and cousins.
When the children heard his 1996 Toyota Corolla approach, they did what had become a family ritual: Run out to the street to greet him and help guide the car into the driveway.
Then a Hellfire missile struck the car.
“I collapsed. I woke up and saw the windows were broken and I thought all of Kabul was burning,” recounted one of the daughters, Zamira. “When I came out, there were pieces of flesh everywhere.”
“When I close my eyes, I can still feel that moment,” said the other daughter, Samia, her voice roughening as her eyes filled with tears. “I don’t have my father, my brothers, my fiance. It changed my life forever.”
“Even if I spoke day and night, I can’t explain all the pain,” she continued.
Efforts to evacuate Ahmadi’s family and colleagues have been bedeviled by the Taliban’s still-developing rules but also by bad luck. At one point this year, an overland exit into Pakistan was to take place over two days. One group was able to leave, but the next day, the second group was held back, with the Taliban citing changes in travel document requirements.
“It’s a fact we were 24 hours away from getting everyone out,” said Brett Max Kaufman, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Ahmadi’s family and his colleagues at Nutrition & Education International, a nonprofit headquartered in Pasadena.
“I don’t think anyone expected that a year out there would still be this many of our clients in Afghanistan,” he said. “That’s incredibly frustrating. And also frightening for those who haven’t made it out.”
Kaufman noted that only 11 family members have made it to the United States. Others who managed to get out of Afghanistan have been stuck for months in Albania, Kosovo, Qatar and elsewhere as they await processing.
“That’s a very long wait in temporary conditions in places where they don’t really have freedom of movement,” he said.
For Ahmadi’s widow, that would still be far better than Afghanistan.
The shock of losing her husband and three of her children left her with mental health issues. She was also diagnosed with diabetes in the last year. She avoids the house where the attack happened. Repairs have erased most of the damage, but only a 20-year-old nephew lives there now — as a caretaker.
“I’ve only been back twice, and I couldn’t stay there for a long time,” she said in an interview at a relative’s house, where she sat cross-legged on a mattress. “I couldn’t bear it.”
As she fell silent, her son-in-law, Jamshid Yousufi, took up the thread of the conversation. His 2-year-old daughter, Sumaya, was the youngest person killed in the strike.
“The U.S. is the world’s superpower, and up to now they haven’t taken us in,” he said. “They should have done this much faster.”
He explained that the strike had subjected the family to scrutiny. From the Taliban, who came to investigate whether the family did indeed have links to the militant group Islamic State. From Islamic State, which has targeted U.S.-affiliated aid workers in the past. And from strangers who threatened one of Ahmadi’s brothers when they heard that the U.S. government had promised to pay compensation.
“When the Americans said they would pay us, people started saying: ‘You’ll now be rich,’ ” he said.
While relatives expect to receive compensation later in the process, none has been paid yet. Their lawyers have instructed them to keep a low profile, meaning no jobs or attending school, much less socializing.
“I wish we had nothing to do with this airstrike,” said Yousufi, 33. “We just don’t know how to put this in words. Somehow we’re living.”
“We can’t even go to our relatives’ house or visit anyone, because we worry that any moment a call may come to tell us to come to leave. It’s the stress, the unknown. We don’t know if we’re staying or going.”
The next day, the Taliban began celebrations for the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal. Starting on Tuesday night, the ruling militant group launched a massive fireworks display from different points around Kabul as its fighters shot tracer rounds from 50-caliber cannons and AK-47s on the streets.
The next morning, one fighter, who gave his name as Omar Mansoor, 35, walked around one of Kabul’s main squares, a rifle lifted over his head.
“I’m the happiest person in the world,” he said, gesturing to the dozens around him carrying the Taliban’s white banner.
“Look at everybody. No Americans. No NATO. No infidels.”
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