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The names you’ll never know
This essay originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.
As a parting shot, on its way out of Afghanistan, the United States military launched a drone attack that the Pentagon called a “righteous strike.” The final missile fired during 20 years of occupation, that August 29th airstrike averted an Islamic State car-bomb attack on the last American troops at Kabul’s airport. At least, that’s what the Pentagon told the world.
Within two weeks, a New York Times investigation would dismantle that official narrative. Seven days later, even the Pentagon admitted it. Instead of killing an ISIS suicide bomber, the United States had slaughtered 10 civilians: Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group; three of his children, Zamir, 20, Faisal, 16, and Farzad, 10; Ahmadi’s cousin Naser, 30; three children of Ahmadi’s brother Romal, Arwin, 7, Benyamin, 6, and Hayat, 2; and two 3-year-old girls, Malika and Somaya.
The names of the dead from the Kabul strike are as important as they are rare. So many civilians have been obliterated, incinerated, or — as in the August 29th attack — “shredded” in America’s forever wars. Who in the United States remembers them? Who here ever knew of them in the first place? Twenty years after 9/11, with the Afghan War declared over, combat in Iraq set to conclude, and President Joe Biden announcing the end of “an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” who will give their deaths another thought?
Americans have been killing civilians since before there was a United States. At home and abroad, civilians — Pequots, African Americans, Cheyenne and Arapaho, Filipinos, Haitians, Japanese, Germans, Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, and Somalis, among others — have been shot, burned, and bombed to death. The slaughter at Sand Creek, the Bud Dajo massacre, the firebombing of Dresden, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the My Lai massacre — the United States has done what it can to sweep it all under the rug through denial, cover-ups, and the most effective means of all: forgetting.
There’s little hope of Americans ever truly coming to terms with the Pequot or Haitian or Vietnamese blood on their hands. But before the forever wars slip from the news and the dead slide into the memory hole that holds several centuries worth of corpses, it’s worth spending a few minutes thinking about Zemari Ahmadi, Benyamin, Hayat, Malika, Somaya, and all the civilians who were going about their lives until the U.S. military ended them.
Names Remembered and Names Forgotten
Over the last 20 years, the United States has conducted more than 93,300 air strikes — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — that killed between 22,679 and 48,308 civilians, according to figures recently released by Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group. The total number of civilians who have died from direct violence in America’s wars since 9/11 tops out at 364,000 to 387,000, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project.
Who were those nearly 400,000 people?
There’s Malana. In 2019, at age 25, she had just given birth to a son, when her health began to deteriorate. Her relatives were driving her to a clinic in Afghanistan’s Khost Province when their vehicle was attacked by a U.S. drone, killing Malana and four others.
Then there was Gulalai, one of seven people, including three women — two of them pregnant — who were shot and killed in a February 12, 2010, raid by Special Operations forces in Afghanistan’s Paktia Province.
And the four members of the Razzo family — Mayada, Tuqa, Mohannad, and Najib — killed in a September 20, 2015, airstrike in Mosul, Iraq.
And there were the eight men, three women, and four children — Abdul Rashid as well as Abdul Rahman, Asadullah, Hayatullah, Mohamadullah, Osman, Tahira, Nadia, Khatima, Jundullah, Soheil, Amir, and two men, ages 25 and 36 respectively, named Abdul Waheed — who were killed in a September 7, 2013, drone strike on Rashid’s red Toyota pickup in Afghanistan.
And between 2013 and 2020, in seven separate U.S. attacks in Yemen — six drone strikes and one raid — 36 members of the al Ameri and al Taisy families were slaughtered.
Those names we know. Or knew, if only barely and fleetingly. Then there are the countless anonymous victims like the three civilians in a blue Kia van killed by Marines in Iraq in 2003. “Two bodies were slumped over in the front seats; they were men in street clothes and had no weapons that I could see. In the back seat, a woman in a black chador had fallen to the floor; she was dead, too,” wrote Peter Maass in the New York Times Magazine in 2003. Years later, at the Intercept, he painted an even more vivid picture of the “blue van, with its tires shot out and its windows shattered by bullets, its interior stained with blood and smelling of death, with flies feasting on already-rotting flesh.”
Those three civilians in Iraq were all too typical of the many anonymous dead of this country’s forever wars — the man shot for carrying a flashlight in an “offensive” manner; the children killed by an “errant” rocket; the man slain by “warning shots”; the three women and one man “machine-gunned” to death; and the men, women and children reduced to “charred meat” in an American bombing.
Who were the 11 Afghans — four of them children — who died in a 2004 helicopter attack, or the “dozen or more” civilians killed in 2010 during a nighttime raid by U.S. troops in that same country? And what about those 30 pine-nut farm workers slaughtered a year later by a drone strike there? And what were the names of Mohanned Tadfi’s mother, brother, sister-in-law, and seven nieces and nephews killed in the U.S. bombing that flattened the city of Raqqa, Syria, in 2017?
Often, the U.S. military had no idea whom they were killing. This country frequently carried out “signature strikes” that executed unknown people due to suspicious behavior. So often, Americans killed such individuals for little or no reason — like holding a weapon in places where, as in this country, firearms were ubiquitous — and then counted them as enemy dead. An investigation by Connecting Vets found that during a 2019 air campaign in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, for example, the threshold for an attack “could be met by as little as a person using or even touching a radio” or if an Afghan carrying “commercially bought two-way radios stepped into a home, the entire building would sometimes be leveled by a drone strike.”
Targeted assassinations were equally imprecise. Secret documents obtained by the Intercept revealed that, during a five-month stretch of Operation Haymaker — a drone campaign in 2011 and 2013 aimed at al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders along the Afghan-Pakistan border — 200 people were killed in airstrikes conducted to assassinate 35 high-value targets. In other words, nearly nine out of 10 people slain in those “targeted” killings were not the intended targets. So, who were they?
Even if targeting was ordinarily more accurate than during Operation Haymaker, U.S. policy has consistently adhered to the dictum that “military-age males” killed in airstrikes should automatically be classified as combatants unless proven innocent. In addition to killing people for spurious reasons, the U.S. also opted for allies who would prove at least as bad as, if not worse than, those they were fighting. For two decades, such American-taxpayer-funded warlords and militiamen murdered, raped, or shook-down the very people this country was supposedly protecting. And, of course, no one knows the names of all those killed by such allies who were being advised, trained, armed, and funded by the United States.
Who, for instance, were the two men tied to the rear fender of a Toyota pickup truck in southeastern Afghanistan in 2012 by members of an Afghan militia backed by U.S. Special Operations forces? They were, wrote reporter Anand Gopal, dragged “along six miles of rock-studded road” until they were dead. Then their “bodies were left decomposing for days, a warning to anyone who thought of disobeying Azizullah,” the U.S.-allied local commander.
Or what about the 12 boys gunned down by CIA-backed militiamen at a madrassa in the Afghan village of Omar Khail? Or the six boys similarly slain at a school in nearby Dadow Khail? Or any of the dead from 10 raids in 2018 and 2019 by that same militia, which summarily executed at least 51 civilians, including boys as young as eight years old, few of whom, wrote reporter Andrew Quilty, appeared “to have had any formal relationship with the Taliban”?
How many reporters’ notebooks are filled with the unpublished names of just such victims? Or counts of those killed? Or the stories of their deaths? And how many of those who were murdered never received even a mention in an article anywhere?
Last year, I wrote 4,500 words for the New York Times Magazine about the deteriorating situation in Burkina Faso. As I noted then, that nation was one of the largest recipients of American security aid in West Africa, even though the State Department admitted that U.S.-backed forces were implicated in a litany of human-rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings.
What never made it into the piece was any mention of three men who were executed in two separate attacks. On May 22, 2019, uniformed Burkinabe troops arrived in the village of Konga and took two brothers, aged 38 and 25, away in the middle of the night. The next day, a relative found them on the side of the road, bound and executed. Most of the family fled the area. “The Army came back a week later,” a relative told me. “My uncle was the only one in our family who stayed. He was shot in broad daylight.” Such deaths are ubiquitous but aren’t even factored into the 360,000-plus civilian deaths counted by the Costs of War project, which offers no estimate for those killed in America’s “smaller war zones.”
To continue reading the second part of this essay, written by Nick Turse, the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center, follow this link. He is the author most recently of Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan and of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves.