The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion After the deadly error in Afghanistan, maybe drones shouldn’t be used to kill at all

Amal Ahmadi with a photo of his slain brother Zamarai Ahmadi in Kabul on Sept. 13. (Bernat Armangue/AP)
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John Bradley, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general, is the co-founder, with his wife, Jan, of the Nashville-based nonprofit Lamia Afghan Foundation.

Almost three weeks after a U.S. military drone attack supposedly killed an Islamic State terrorist in Kabul on Aug. 29, the Defense Department acknowledged a tragic error: The victim was a longtime Afghan aid worker. He died along with nine members of his extended family, including seven children.

Zamarai Ahmadi, the 43-year-old aid worker, was desperate to move to the United States with his family as Kabul fell to the Taliban amid the chaotic U.S. withdrawal. I know, because a few days before he died, I filed paperwork seeking his emergency evacuation.

The fact that Ahmadi was killed by the U.S. military even as he sought to gain refuge in the United States underlines how horribly things can go wrong with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for combat operations.

As a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general, I know about the importance of force protection. The drone strike, three days after a car bomb at the Kabul airport killed 13 U.S. service personnel, was intended to stop another attack. But I also know about targeting and the use of ordnance in combat — and the care with which operations are carried out when the lives of young men and women of the U.S. armed forces are on the line.

Now consider what happened in Kabul. The Defense Department’s reports on the Hellfire missile strike from an MQ-9 Reaper said remote observers had tracked for hours a suspicious white Toyota Corolla. I have visited Kabul many times. I can attest that in the city of 4.4 million people, it often seems that 99 percent of the cars are Toyotas, most of them are Corollas and a large majority are white.

Trying to pinpoint the driver of a particular vehicle in Kabul as a terrorist would require on-the-ground information. In the frenzy of the U.S. pullout, such evidence clearly wouldn’t be forthcoming. Human intelligence about Ahmadi on the day of his death would have shown that he was loading his car with containers of water. U.S. military observers using an unmanned vehicle high above the city thought the containers were explosives.

In the absence of solid information, the observers had no idea who was driving the car. Or that he was seeking emergency evacuation to the United States.

I became involved in Ahmadi’s application process at the request of my friend Steven Kwon, the president and chief executive of Nutrition and Education International. The California-based nonprofit fights malnutrition in Afghanistan by encouraging soybean cultivation and production. I head a nonprofit also focused on aiding Afghanistan and have worked closely with NEI.

Here is what Dr. Kwon, as I always call the food scientist, could have told anyone who asked: Ahmadi, hired by NEI in 2006 as a handyman, hadn’t been to college, but he absorbed so much information from foreign engineers building NEI’s soybean factories that he became instrumental in their construction.

Dr. Kwon says Ahmadi was hard-working — taking English classes at 6 a.m. before work at 8 a.m. — but he was also a cheerful, outgoing person, as well as a talented singer and dancer. He took special joy in bringing food to poor villages, such as the one where he grew up, and feeding children suffering from malnutrition.

Many of NEI’s Afghan workers, including Ahmadi, were frightened by the Taliban’s looming takeover. Dr. Kwon submitted applications for the State Department’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program Priority 2, or P-2, on their behalf. But that process can take months, and employees who had long worked with Americans, such as Ahmadi, were at heightened risk. As the situation in Kabul deteriorated in August, Dr. Kwon asked me to apply to the Defense Department for the emergency evacuation of Ahmadi and his family, as well as several other longtime NEI employees.

Receipt of the emergency evacuation request was acknowledged by former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, who had been dispatched to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport to help Americans and Afghans scrambling to get out of the country. But as the world knows, thousands of people were left stranded.

Then came the drone strike. Such attacks bear little resemblance to what I know from flying 337 close-air-support combat missions in the Vietnam War, or from training, as a senior officer, with young pilots who would deploy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet although the technology and procedures have changed over time, ultimately the method is the same: Pilots are guided to marked targets by controllers who are working with on-the-ground information and must give the pilots clearance to release ordnance. Deadly mistakes are rare.

The current “over the horizon” U.S. plan for attacking the nation’s enemies from afar makes the death of more noncombatants seem inevitable. As the Defense Department investigates how the terrible error in Kabul occurred, a more expansive government review is in order: Should we, as a people, want these unmanned vehicles to continue expending deadly ordnance on our behalf? Maybe they should be used only for reconnaissance.