Asadabad, the sylvan capital of Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan, has a population of more than 30,000 but the feel of a village. Little happens there without being noticed. Were you out surveying the bazaar on September 7, 2013, you might have seen eight men, three women, and four young children climb into a red Toyota pickup. Most were members of an extended family, returning home after running errands. The pickup was just large enough to accommodate the women and children, with the men piled into the back alongside the sacks of flour they had purchased. Their village, Gambir, was a 2 1/2-hour drive northwest on a rough and undulating road. The village had no electricity or running water, and whatever food that couldn’t be grown had to be brought in from town. To get a phone signal, you climbed a hill. To feel warm to the bone, you waited for spring.
The driver was a 26-year-old father of two named Abdul Rashid. Because the road into Pech Valley toward Gambir was famously treacherous, a kind of buddy system had developed among cab drivers. That morning, Abdul Rashid had been trying to coordinate the journey with his friend and relative, Mohibullah, but by early afternoon, he had decided to go ahead without him. The four children — including Abdul Rashid’s daughter, Aisha, age 4, and her baby brother, Jundullah, 18 months — were growing restless with the wait. Just after 3 p.m., the truck began to move.
Abdul Rashid stopped in the east end of Asadabad to pick up one last passenger, a woman traveling alone, before heading west. For the last three days, the drivers servicing the Pech had staged a strike to protest poor road conditions. September 7 was Rashid’s first day back on the job.
An hour into the journey, they entered Watapur, a district that sits along the northeastern tributary of the Pech River. Around then, the road paved by the U.S. military came to an end and the gravel path began. On occasion, the truck would get stuck in a bog, and the men would jump off to push it forward. In this way, the party continued to thread north toward Gambir. Watapur is as staggeringly beautiful as it is inaccessible, and along the way, the travelers might have seen children swimming nearby in a brook, or kites flying on the crest of a hill.
Around 5:30 p.m., not long after Abdul Rashid dropped off the lone passenger, a missile fired by a drone hit the right side of the pickup. Those who were not engulfed in the initial conflagration rushed out of the truck. Three more strikes tore through the vehicle in three-minute intervals. After a 10-minute lull, the final strike came, its shrapnel meant to kill everyone in its fragmentation radius. The strike was over in less than 20 minutes.
The landscape of Kunar, alive with thick vegetation and violence, can be hostile to outsiders. In military memoirs, of which there are many, Kunar’s Pech Valley is typically depicted as an impenetrable fortress. Often referred to as the “heart of darkness,” Pech’s capillary valleys have been the subject of much Orientalizing prose. In “Lone Survivor,” the account of a Navy SEAL operation gone awry, the Pech is described as a “dust-colored place,” where “angry, resentful men” who are “Primitive with a big P,” live in “caveman conditions.” The U.S. military made little effort to understand its area of operation when in 2003, it sent a detachment of Green Berets into the valley who spoke Korean, Mandarin, and Thai and later, conventional military units with even less local understanding.
Apart from the dense foliage, the country here is also veined with gullies flanked by rocks in shades of umber and ochre, making it difficult for troops to maintain consistent contact, let alone arrange for a helicopter landing zone. Soldiers’ accounts are replete with mentions of altitude sickness, torn knee ligaments, and twisted ankles.
The Watapur Valley, which is 10 miles long, was of particular interest to the U.S. military during the early years of the Afghan war, as it was believed to be an entry point for foreign fighters. This access, called a “rat line” in military argot, was said to be used by Arab and Pakistani militants to smuggle fighters and weapons from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The U.S. military had long attempted (without much success) to build a company-sized operation in Gambir in the northernmost edge of the valley, which was said to house insurgent training camps. “The area around Gambir is like mountain phase of Ranger School,” said Wesley Morgan, author of an upcoming book on the Pech. “If you are running a militant cell and you are worried about Rangers or SEALs coming for you in the night, that’s unlikely to happen in the upper Watapur. You are pretty safe up there.”
Since 2007, a U.S. infantry base called Combat Outpost Honaker-Miracle had represented the American military in Watapur, but by 2013, it had been handed over to the Afghan army. The Afghans, unlike the Americans, who made annual raids into Watapur only to return having incurred casualties, kept to the Hesco barriers of the quickly diminishing base. The fledgling Afghan security forces knew they were no match for Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq, Syria-Khorasan, and the 463 other insurgent cells that called the tributaries of the Pech their home. In Asadabad, there were still the trappings of a state, but out here was insurgent country.
But none of this mattered to Mohibullah, whose primary objective was scratching out his $3,400 a year as a livery cab driver. For all the talk of American money pouring into the country — between 2001 and 2014, that number was an estimated $686 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service — life for him was no different from the lives of men who came before him. Mohibullah was born in the Pech, and he assumed he would die there, like everyone else he knew.
When Mohibullah dropped off his truck at the mechanic, it was afternoon. He had wanted to join Abdul Rashid for the drive back to Gambir, but when he stopped by the garage at 2 p.m., the truck was still not ready. Abdul Rashid had sounded eager to arrive home before sunset, so Mohibullah told him to go ahead, he’d come when the car was ready. Half an hour after Abdul Rashid left, Mohibullah rushed to join his friend.
There was a sick beauty to the scene — white powder over blood-red carnage.
Before setting out, Abdul Rashid had phoned to say that he was picking up another passenger. He didn’t say who it was, but the detour would give Mohibullah enough time to catch up. The drive from Asadabad to Gambir was just 12.5 miles, but the going was slow even for skilled drivers like Abdul Rashid and Mohibullah. Both had been driving in the area for most of their adult lives and knew well every spur and ridgeline of the terrain.
That afternoon, Mohibullah’s passengers were a family of six. To make conversation, he talked about the road. For some time now, the drivers in the area had organized themselves to demand that the villagers rebuild the roads, which were terrible. Then the drivers went on strike. When they saw that the villagers were working on the roads, they, too, returned to work. Mohibullah was grateful for the villagers, but why couldn’t the government do something about it? “If we have good roads, we could bring our harvest to the city faster and sell it for more,” Mohibullah recalled saying. The farther you traveled from Kabul, the more irrelevant the central government became.
By the time they entered Watapur, Mohibullah could see Abdul Rashid’s pickup ahead of him. The red steel exterior of the truck would catch the light while going over a rise, before disappearing again. Mohibullah’s truck, the same as Abdul Rashid’s but in blue, steadily crunched over the grit-covered road. From an eye in the sky, you would have seen the blue of Mohibullah’s truck closing distance on the red of Abdul Rashid’s, just half a mile ahead now. Mohibullah imagined he would give his friend a big grin as he drove past, to show that he had caught up like he said he would.
It was then that Mohibullah registered the familiar whir of a drone, which the locals call by the onomatopoeic name, ghanghai. When the American military whittled down its presence in the valley in 2011 and began relying more on airpower, these toy-like machines began appearing in the sky. By the fall of 2013, they had become a common enough feature in the Pech that Mohibullah did not give their presence much thought. “This is usual for me. Every day I was hearing this kind of sound,” he later said. Even after he heard the first strike, he drove on. It wasn’t until a man from the nearby village of Quroo gestured at him to stop that he slowed his truck to a halt. Together they scaled a hillock, and from an overlook, they saw the husk of the pickup, strafed and lit up in flames. They hurried toward the fire.
When Mohibullah arrived at the blast site, he saw that of the 17 bags of flour he had helped load onto the truck, just two were intact. The rest had splayed open. There was a sick beauty to the scene — white powder over blood-red carnage.
These were men and women Mohibullah had grown up with, but he couldn’t recognize any of them. Their mangled body parts made it difficult to ascertain where one person ended and another began: spilled brains over severed limbs over ground flesh. Amid the charred corpses, he found a woman who appeared to be nearing death. Nearby, a girl lay mute. Mohibullah did not recognize the girl — her face had been “scrambled, she didn’t have her nose.” She still had both of her legs, but he wasn’t sure if her torso was connecting them to the rest of her body. It wasn’t until she asked in a frail voice — “Where is my father? Where is my mother?” — that he understood her to be his 4-year-old niece Aisha.
At first, it was just Mohibullah, another driver named Hamish Gul, and three villagers from Quroo who came to help. Most people in the area knew to stay away. The ghanghai often attacked again. Even so, the five of them worked at untangling the dead bodies — among them Aisha’s mother, father, grandmother, and little brother — and stacking them in neat rows atop the bed of Mohibullah’s truck.
Strikes by the ghanghai were a common occurrence. The men heard them every day, multiple times a day. Just three months earlier, according to villagers, a drone had killed a woman and her cow in a neighboring village. When the ghanghai flew overhead, the laborers knew to spread out away from one another to diffuse the chances of being targeted. It was as routine as a smoke break.
Another of Aisha’s uncles, 34-year-old Mya Jan, and the other men of Gambir had been working on the road nearby to honor the demands of the drivers. A few minutes after they heard the drone, the workers heard a series of explosions, and that’s when Mya Jan, a burly man with a sharp nose and an unkempt beard, remembered that his brother Abdul Rashid was driving back from Asadabad. Mya Jan began walking toward the sound of the explosions, and soon he was running. “Some minutes later, I reached and that is when I saw everything.”
“I couldn’t find my brother. I saw Aisha, but it wasn’t her. I couldn’t believe it was her,” he said. Her face had come undone.
“First, we thought she had died,” Mya Jan said. “She had one eye, no nose, no skin on her forehead, and her lower lip was gone.”
The plan was that Mohibullah would drive the bodies back to Gambir for burial. As for the girl, they would bring her there too. No one believed she would survive, and it wouldn’t make any sense to waste a trip to Asadabad for someone who had no chance of living.
The women packed the mutilated bodies into white funereal shrouds, distended from the entrails that threatened to split them open.
A neighbor named Nasir held Aisha together for the drive back to Gambir. During the 2-mile journey, Aisha did not make a sound. Life seemed to be slipping away from her. Nasir assumed she would be buried. But when they arrived in Gambir, Aisha turned her head and asked for water. Her voice was so full of intent that they decided to rush her to a hospital in Asadabad.
Nasir volunteered to drive. He borrowed Mohibullah’s blue pickup. He set out after 8 p.m., tracing the route to Asadabad. They were fearful of the open sky above and drove slowly. They wouldn’t arrive at the hospital until after 10 p.m., a full seven hours after the attack.
Mohibullah stayed behind to help with the burials. “Everyone was scared,” he recalled. The women were crying when they saw the truck laden with bodies. “They were thinking, maybe my son, maybe my brother, maybe my father.” Some men were sent to inform the families of the dead. Others began the work of digging graves. Some 40 to 50 men worked steadily, taking turns. The women packed the mutilated bodies into white funereal shrouds, distended from the entrails that threatened to split them open. The bodies were not washed, as victims of drone strikes were considered instant martyrs. Martyrs go “directly to paradise,” according to Rahimullah, an elder from Gambir, who estimated that some 200 people in the area had been killed by drones, but the September 7 attack was the deadliest the village had ever seen.
Islam dictates that a body be buried immediately upon death, and so the men worked through the night. By 8 a.m., the pit was ready. An elder led the congregation in prayer, first for the women, then the children, then the men. The men raised their hands to the sky and began the prayer. May Allah give them paradise. May he forgive their sins. May he protect them from hell-fire. May he fill their graves with light. They would mourn for three days, the religiously sanctioned time for grief.
After the burial, Mohibullah returned to Asadabad to pick up his truck, now caked in blood. He took it to a car wash. The next day, he was back at the roundabout, picking up passengers for 250 Pakistani rupees, about $2 a ride. For six months after the strike, Mohibullah had a stutter. His ears were full of tinnitus. When he lay to sleep at night, he suffered nightmares in which the scene of the strike went on in an interminable loop.
Haji Rafiullah was the nurse on duty at Asadabad Provincial Hospital when Aisha was brought in. There wasn’t much he could do for her. Her stomach was missing, as were parts of her face and her left arm. He registered her into the hospital database, writing “acute abdominal injuries” next to her name, treated her with basic first aid, and sent her to the nearest hospital in Jalalabad, 57 miles away.
Aisha was admitted to the Jalalabad Public Health Hospital at 12:15 a.m. the next day. She arrived at the end of Dr. Khaled Koreishi’s 18-hour shift. According to operation notes, Koreishi checked Aisha’s airway, breathing, and circulation. He gave her general anesthesia, dressed her burns, treated the middle part of her large intestine, and performed a laparotomy — opening the abdominal cavity to observe injuries. By then, she had lost much of the sight in her remaining eye. Her left hand had been severed in the attack. Beyond that, there wasn’t much he could do. According to the hastily written marginalia, despite her multiple head injuries, Aisha still had her hearing.
A helicopter came at 10 p.m. to take Aisha to Kabul, but it had trouble landing and left without her. Another came around midnight, taking her to the French military hospital at Kabul airport. Mya Jan and another uncle followed by car.
While Aisha was at the hospital, a woman, a foreigner, visited Mya Jan. The woman, tall with white hair, told Mya Jan that she was planning on taking Aisha abroad for treatment, he recalled, but that he would have to sign some paperwork. If he had a passport, he could come with her. Mya Jan told her that he didn’t have one, and that he wouldn’t let his 4-year-old niece travel to a foreign country without a guardian. The woman left. The next day, she returned. She asked again that he sign the papers, this time in a firmer tone. Again, Mya Jan said no, invoking the Pashtun saying that a female traveler must be chaperoned by a male relative. “Plus, she could not see anything. She might need my help,” Mya Jan explained.
Soon after this visit, Aisha lost consciousness. The surgeon treating her told Mya Jan that Aisha might not survive if she experienced further delays. When the woman returned to see Mya Jan the next day, he was prepared to sign the four-page document. She did not explain what the papers were for, Mya Jan said, and he did not know to ask. She told him where she needed his signature, and once she had it, she gathered up the papers and left. Twelve days after the strike, Aisha was gone.
A few days later, Mya Jan dialed the number that the woman had left behind, but the call did not go through. Mya Jan, a mason from a remote village in eastern Afghanistan, began the search for his niece. He met with parliamentarians and provincial council members. He waited in front of ministries and embassies, trying to get an audience with anyone who might know something about the whereabouts of the 4-year-old. He returned to the French military hospital, but he said no one would let him in.
Before she disappeared, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had visited Aisha at the French hospital during her stay. There, Karzai was confronted with a girl who had lost her sight, her nose, her lower lip, the skin on her forehead, the skin on her torso, her left hand, and nine members of her family, including her grandmother, her uncles, her aunts, her cousin, her mother, her father, and her baby brother.
“I cannot describe what I saw there,” Rangin Spanta, who served as national security adviser under Karzai and accompanied him to the hospital that day, told me from his home in Kabul. We were sitting on a rattan set on his front porch. In telling this story, Spanta covered his face and wept. “Still I have my trauma.” Spanta had lost five family members in the war, but the sight of Aisha, a girl who had been reduced to a “piece of biological construct,” gave him “the feeling that this was a kind of a nightmare.” Spanta, who had seen the guts of suicide bombers splattered across his car window and has visited double, triple, and quadruple amputees, said Aisha was the “most shocking thing I’ve seen in this war.” Karzai asked the attending doctor why her face was covered. “Because there is nothing there” was the answer. They stayed to watch her small chest rise and fall in laborious breathing. Karzai cried for at least a minute before saying to no one in particular, “I wish she were also dead,” Spanta said.
Afterward, Karzai requested the French bring Aisha to Paris for treatment, he said in a November 2016 interview with The Intercept. The French deferred to the Americans, Karzai recalled. By then, Karzai’s relationship with the United States had reached a new nadir, and he did not wish to send one of his own behind enemy lines.
He asked Spanta, who has German citizenship, to see if the Germans might take her. The Germans also deferred to the Americans, according to Spanta. Meanwhile, the Americans — U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham and other high-ranking NATO officials — insisted that Aisha be brought to the U.S., Karzai said. Karzai was not happy with the decision, but he conceded. “I didn’t want her to be treated in America,” he said. “I didn’t want to send her to a country that had bombed her family.”
“That moment, when I was standing there,” Karzai said, “there was an unbelievable feeling of disgust and anger at our own misfortune and helplessness.”
One day, months after Aisha disappeared, Mya Jan was again in front of the hospital gate when a call from an unknown number came through. A man spoke to him in Farsi. Mya Jan explained that he spoke only Pashto. Some minutes later, another call came through, Mya Jan recalled, and this time a man identifying himself as Zaman Rashid explained in Pashto that Aisha was in America at a hospital in Washington, D.C., called Walter Reed.
Rashid was an Afghan who was then living with Patsy and Richard Wilson, the founders of a Mooresville, North Carolina-based organization called Solace for the Children. Solace brought child war victims to the United States to receive medical treatment, Rashid among them and later, Aisha. The organization was founded in 1997 to help victims of the Chernobyl disaster in Belarus but remained inactive until it reopened in 2007 to work in Afghanistan. In the decade since, Solace has brought over 200 Afghan children ages 7 through 12 to the U.S. for care, according to director Patsy Wilson.
In one of many telephone interviews, Patsy Wilson disputed Mya Jan’s claim that the family was unaware of Aisha’s whereabouts. “There is the truth and there are imaginations,” she told me from her home near Fort Bragg. “Her family was fully aware of how she got to America. Her family signed off on everything. I can tell you very officially her family signed off on the paperwork it took to get her treatment.” Wilson said the family member who signed the release form had been identified as Aisha’s grandfather, but citing Solace policy, said she could not reveal his name. Aisha’s only living grandfather, 67-year-old Haji Zamat Gul, said he did not recall signing any forms.
Wilson told The Intercept that Solace had not attempted to contact Aisha’s other family members because they had believed she was an orphan. “We knew her parents were dead. We had that confirmed. At the time, we didn’t have any kind of official notification from the Afghan government about which relatives might be left,” she said. Wilson added that a few months after Aisha arrived in the U.S., the Afghan Embassy contacted Solace with the names of two of her uncles. “From that time on, we stayed in touch. We weren’t hiding anything.” The Afghan Embassy told me they had no record of reaching out to Wilson.
Mya Jan had a different reading of the events. “The NGO, they wanted to hide the girl from the journalists and the family. I told them, Give my niece back to me, and they said No, we don’t want to give to you,” he said. His voice rose in anger when he spoke of Solace.
When the uncles eventually got on the phone with Aisha, months after she disappeared, Aisha asked for the phone to be handed over to her parents. “Where is mother? Please give the phone to her,” Mya Jan said recalling his conversation with Aisha. “But we couldn’t tell her that everyone had died. She is the only one for us who is alive.”
The children who Solace brings to the U.S. have been profiled in People, the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, and CBS News. What has not been documented is the intricate web of religious and military connections in which the organization is involved.
“We do not necessarily believe Aisha was in a drone strike,” said Wilson, “but I know that is one of the stories.”
Wilson said she could not explain how her organization became involved with Aisha’s case, except to say that while there was no official relationship between the U.S. military and Solace, individual members of the military often reached out to Solace, which had been the case for Aisha. Wilson would not say who in the U.S. military contacted Solace about her situation. “We just get calls. We get calls from the military all over Afghanistan,” she said. She repeatedly deferred to the military, stating, “I am sure they don’t say we kidnap children.” Wilson also expressed doubts that Aisha had been injured in a drone strike, despite the claims of scores of villagers interviewed by The Intercept. “We do not necessarily believe Aisha was in a drone strike, but I know that is one of the stories,” she said. When pressed for details, she said, “I have been told not to discuss that,” adding, “We have no facts. There are no facts.”
“I am just telling you that the child was not abducted,” Wilson said. “The child’s life was saved. The family absolutely knew it.”
According to tax documents, Solace has no employees and lists a post office box registered to Patsy Wilson as its location of business. In-kind donations are its primary source of revenue, and additional funds come from three local churches in the Mooresville area: Central United Methodist Church, Davidson United Methodist, and Williamson’s Chapel.
The Intercept spoke to more than 30 current and former Solace board members, as well as volunteers and associates to inquire about its religious history and ties to the military. Many made contradictory claims. According to Wilson, “None of us had any military connection whatsoever.” Yet former board member Adam Boatsman said, “If I had to guess, the U.S. military was probably responsible for 100 percent of the referrals in the beginning.”
Until its bankruptcy in 2012, Global Aviation Holdings, a contractor for the U.S. military, made at least three donations to Solace. Former Solace board member and former Global employee Steve Forsyth said the company began giving to Solace as a result of a military contact, but he could not recall the details. The Intercept spoke with two former CEOs of Global Aviation Holdings, neither of whom could recall how the company’s relationship with Solace began.
Another Solace board member, Bart Clark, served as an intelligence officer for the Department of Defense during his tenure in Afghanistan and currently works as an intelligence officer for Special Operations Command out of Fort Bragg. In July 2013, Clark arranged for an Afghan 8-year-old named Maryam to receive heart surgery in the U.S. and live in the home of Ashley and Marcus Lewis, a staff sergeant at Fort Bragg who had just returned from a deployment in Afghanistan. Clark told me that it was Solace policy for children not to communicate with family for the first six to eight weeks after being brought to the United States, to help with full immersion.
Sandy Tabor-Gray, another former board member, explained that Lake Norman Children’s Relief, a progenitor to Solace, began as a Christian charity. “While the kids were here, we did what we call Christianity classes,” she said. When the organization shifted to Afghanistan, it changed its name and shed its religious markers in favor of a humanitarian identity, Tabor-Gray said. But even then, Solace maintained its ties to local churches, which continued to provide funding, as well as host families. A release form given to Afghan parents stated that children would be living with a Christian family in the U.S. and would be participating in all activities, including church attendance. “Most of us are still Christians, but what we do now, we do out of love for one another and God’s love, and we don’t need to speak it. We just show it,” Tabor-Gray said.
In August 2015, Aisha returned to Afghanistan for paperwork that would allow her to apply for a U.S. visa. I drove to Kunar to meet her. From Kabul, you drive east toward the quarries in Laghman province, along a road that tips over cliffs. Beyond Jalalabad, the road, still without guardrails, turns north. Depending on the season, you might see men selling sugar canes along the road; stalks of rhubarb to be eaten raw, the favored snack of long-haul truck drivers; or crates of ruby-red pomegranates. The fields are speckled with the white blooms of the potato flower. In the fall, the sun-slashed valley produces walnuts, jujubes, and persimmons. Kunar is evergreen country, its woodlands famous for the cedars that leave the scent of felled timber wherever you go.
The first thing Aisha wanted to do when she landed in Kabul, her uncles told me, was to buy gifts for her parents and her younger brother, whom she hadn’t seen in two years. The family still did not have the heart to tell her the truth and evaded her entreaties. When she asked for her mother, they told her that she was busy cooking. When she asked for her father, they told her that he was on a long-haul ride. When she asked for her baby brother, they placed the nearest infant in her arms. “He got bigger! It is very good,” Aisha said, wrapping the infant in an asphyxiating hug.
Aisha was inquisitive. “You give her an apple and she asks, Where did you get this? From which shop? Which shopkeeper sold it to you? How much did you pay for it?” her uncle Hazrat Gul told me. And indeed, she had many questions for me. How old was I? Did I talk to boys? Was I a Muslim?
She was obsessed with this last question. I had a certain vision of what a drone strike survivor would be like, and Aisha did not fit that bill. When my headscarf fell, she ordered me to pull it closer to my face, and when she grabbed me by the hand and felt that my sleeves had ridden up my arms, she instructed me to “pull your sleeves down so we know you are a good Muslim.” By then, Aisha was 6 years old and had already lived in America for two years. She spoke English with ease.
I had brought chocolates that melted in the five-hour drive up to Kunar. When I presented the dissolving chocolates, she welcomed the gift, licking clean the wrappers as she worked through the box. As I soon learned, she had an immense sweet tooth, and many of her teeth were visibly rotten. A pair of glasses held up her plastic nose. When it slipped off, I saw the cavity where her nose had been. There was a crease of a scar where her lower lip used to be. The skin on her neck bore the stiffness of a burn victim. Her hair had not grown back in full, and her scalp was smooth and taut.
Aisha had survived a drone strike, and for this she was elevated to the realm of a living deity. Neighbors came to see her, showering her with money and jewelry. They took pictures in return. Her wrists were heavy with plastic bangles. Rings adorned all her available fingers, and both lobes were heavy with earrings. With her right hand, she clutched a crisp Pakistani rupee bill she had been given; her left arm ended in an abrupt stump. No one dared to discipline her, and so she hit, bit, and pinched those around her.
Aisha had survived a drone strike, and for this she was elevated to the realm of a living deity.
On one of my visits, I was invited into the private quarters of the house, away from the drawing room where formal guests were received. The drawing room was the province of men, where the best china was served, the food was hot, and the carapace of outward propriety held. Behind the curtain made of grain sacks sewn together, where the women and children were, was where the real living happened. The courtyard, where goats chewed their cud, was also where the women baked bread and the children played. Surrounding the courtyard were two stories of rooms resembling a budget motel along a highway, complete with exterior hallways. Each of these rooms was a world unto itself, where a nuclear family lived. I counted 80 aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family members.
Her life may have been cleaved by a drone, but Aisha had not lost her sense of play. On the rooftop, we played a game of trying to find the opposite of things. What is the opposite of pizza? I asked. Answer: tacos. What is the opposite of qabli pulao, a rice pilaf dish of julienned carrots and raisins? The plums we were eating, we decided. What is the opposite of Virginia, where she had been living with a host family? This house in Asadabad. For the past two years, she had lived as an orphan, only to be greeted on her return by scores of relatives. She explained how they were all related to her. She told me that there were more in Gambir, where everyone knew her by name.
We had stayed up past her bedtime to watch that special way the sun sets across the valley in Kunar, creating a phantasmagoria of colors, but now it was time for sleep. We lay on a cot under the sky, facing the jagged ranges that stand erect like partitions around Asadabad. The sounds of cicadas filled the night. The moon was full. I saw a shooting star. I saw for the first time that the skin on Aisha’s left eyelid had not grown back. It made it seem as if she wasn’t sleeping at all. Because she was so alive, it was easy to get over the initial shock of seeing her and treat her like a normal child. But now, silent and unmoving, I saw more clearly the damage that had been done to her.
Aisha told me that she preferred Gambir over Asadabad, Afghanistan over America. But by the season’s end, she would be returning to the U.S., where she could receive the medical care she needed.
The next morning, I woke up to see Aisha throwing a tantrum. She had asked her aunt to bring her a set of earrings she wanted to show me. Her aunt had obliged, but they were the wrong earrings. They now lay on the floor where Aisha had imperiously thrown them. When she turned and saw that I was up, she said sheepishly, “I threw those on the floor.” She knew she was misbehaving. Your aunt is very pretty, I said. “Am I pretty?” Aisha asked.
A few months later, Aisha returned to Virginia to join her host parents, Ghotai Ghazialam and Alex Coissac, who had taken her in after she was discharged from Walter Reed. Aisha nearly didn’t make the flight, as minors are only allowed to travel with their guardians. President Karzai intervened, according to Mya Jan, allowing Aisha to make the trip.
Ghazialam and Coissac turned down requests for on-the-record interviews. “Aisha has a very bright future, provided she can finish her medical treatment and continue to go to blind school in the U.S. To do so, it is important she is being treated no different than any other little girls, and not become a center of political attention,” Ghaizalam wrote in an email. Aisha would make a good poster child — the faceless girl who becomes the face of the drone war — but it would come at the expense of other things. “Ghotai and myself see no interest in using Aisha as a political tool,” Coissac wrote in another email.
The day after the strike that killed Aisha’s family, on September 8, 2013, the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, issued a statement that “10 enemy forces” had been killed. The statement made no mention of civilian casualties.
Soon ISAF amended its initial statement to say that a woman and a child had also been killed and told the United Nations that it was “unable to rule out the possibility of at least one further woman civilian having been killed.” Later that week, ISAF spokesperson Jane Crichton told media that the strike had indeed killed eight insurgents, but “there were, unfortunately, believed to be three civilian casualties.” She added that “one high-level target” was “most likely” killed. Ten days following the strike, ISAF launched an internal investigation into the incident. The results of that investigation remain classified.
The U.N. also wavered in its reporting. In an internal memo, it said that “10 civilians were killed and a seven-year-old girl was seriously wounded as a result of an IM [international military] aerial attack.” The attack targeted a vehicle “allegedly carrying several suspected AGE,” referring to “anti-government elements,” and “family members of a veteran AGE commander,” who was “allegedly involved in issuing decrees (fatwas) against several pro-government civilians and government officials.” It stated that a group of anti-government elements joined the civilians along the way. The victims, the memo continued, “included five children, two men, and four women.” Six suspected insurgents were killed as well, the memo concluded.
In a report dated February 8, 2014, the U.N. stated that the attack had killed 10 civilians and four insurgents, injuring one girl. A later report amended the numbers to 11 civilians and six insurgents. Yet another report, this one dated March 10, 2014, read that 10 civilians and six combatants had been killed, bringing the total number of passengers to 16.
The U.N. began tabulating civilian casualties in 2009, using a triangulation system whereby sources from three distinct units were called upon to confirm an event. “Their accounting was more robust than ISAF because they included local sources,” said Chris Kolenda, a former senior U.S. defense official who led an airborne infantry task force in Kunar.
But accounting for civilian casualties is a fraught exercise. In the case of the September 7 strike, the U.N. caseworker in charge said he could not recall if he had traveled to Kunar as part of his investigation. “It’s not possible to go to Gambir. You should travel to Asadabad. I don’t remember if I went to Asadabad,” said the officer, who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak with a reporter. He told me he had interviewed the governor of Kunar, community elders, and the police chief, none of whom were firsthand witnesses. His main source, he said, from whom he had derived the list of the dead, was Jahan Shah, the deputy head of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s spy agency.
Shah, however, told me he had not met anyone from a U.N. fact-finding trip. Shah had been in a helicopter crash a few days prior to the September 7, 2013 strike, and since then, his sinuses had been bothering him. When the attack happened, he was in India seeing an ear, nose, and throat doctor. When the U.N. officer called, he had asked him to hold the line, received a briefing from his colleague, and relayed information about an Arab fighter and 18 passengers with names like Asma, Hajra, Rajaba, and Asmat, all of which appear on the U.N. list. When I asked villagers from Gambir, however, no one knew anyone by these names.
Later, NATO said that the intended target of the September 7 strike was a “mid-level Al Qaeda facilitator who maintained courier networks back into Pakistan” named Sulayman Ahmad Turaykim al-Hamden. Hamden had “served as interlocutor for moving men/material into Afghanistan.” None of the Kunar residents interviewed by The Intercept said they had heard of al-Hamden. No one believed he had been riding in the pickup.
On the morning of September 8, 2013, Kunar Gov. Shuja ul-Mulk Jalalah received an unusual phone call. It came from the Office of the President. On the other line, Jalalah said, was President Hamid Karzai himself, who wanted to know “the exact information, the full story” about the drone strike the night before. Jalalah did not know much but promised to update the president on a regular basis. Then, around 8 a.m., Jalalah received a visit from 150 elders who had traveled from Watapur to lodge a complaint. “They were speaking very loudly,” Jalalah recalled. “They were saying, ‘What kind of a governor are you that you are sitting here while they are killing us?’” They wouldn’t leave. And so Jalalah prepared lunch for the men, and afterward, all of them prayed in the garden of the governor’s palace, 300 palms open to the sky.
Jalalah deputized his office manager, Fareed Hasam, to collate all the available information on the strike and prepare a daily memo for Kabul. Fareed, a former reporter with the looks of an aging Bollywood star, wrote his first memo the following day. “In Kunar, at 5:30 p.m. a drone attacked and 14 people were killed,” the initial memo began. The memo included a list of those killed, attributed to the local branch of the National Directorate of Security. The list included a man named Nazer Mohammad, a shadow governor for Watapur and former justice director for the Taliban.
Hasam’s second letter was written at the behest of NDS, which insisted that the final tally on the casualties was 17. “Still we do not know the reason for the deaths. We do not know exactly because the area is completely controlled by insurgents and we cannot send our monitors there,” the memo read. The third letter, also with input from NDS, listed as passengers a Pakistani insurgent named Hanifullah and an Arab fighter named Abu Salman Ahmadi. Neither man had been in the truck that day, villagers said.
By that point, a theory had begun to take hold among the Asadabad governing class that an Arab commander being followed by a drone had commandeered the truck before it was hit. The provincial police chief, Abdul Habib Sayed Khalid, went on the record saying that four women, four children, and one man, as well as three Arab and three Afghan fighters, had been killed. But when pressed for specifics, subscribers to these theories, including the police chief, demurred and admitted that their information had come through second- or thirdhand sources. No one could account for the conspicuous absence of this foreign fighter’s corpse.
Hasam, frustrated by the mounting inconsistencies, launched his own investigation. None of the villagers Hasam spoke with said Nazer Mohammad or Hanifullah or Ahmadi — the fighters mentioned in NDS accounts — had been riding in the pickup that day. The villagers were consistent in their account that 14 men, women, and children had died, and that one girl had survived. It seemed to him that NATO and the U.N. had made a mistake. This theory, however, was swiftly abandoned by everyone, Hasam said.
There was no appetite for a version of events that would make the Americans — and by extension the Afghan government — look bad. Hasam believed that his findings had been dismissed “because they were against the authorities of the U.S.” He didn’t expect the U.N. to be of any help either. “I didn’t speak to the U.N. They don’t care of whether it is right or wrong. They just want to finish the work. They want to be freed from it,” he said. Indeed, many key witnesses said they had never been approached by the U.N. or NATO. At our last meeting, Hasam said he had told me everything he knew, and it was now up to me to fill in the blanks. “I’ve told you all the truths and half-truths. All that is left are lies. Do you want to hear them too?”
There was no appetite for a version of events that would make the Americans — and by extension the Afghan government — look bad.
Spanta, Karzai’s national security adviser, said he sometimes had the feeling that his American allies “filtered their information.” Upon learning about the September 7 strike, Spanta told me he called U.S. Ambassador Cunningham to inquire. Spanta said he was told that an American drone had attacked a Taliban convoy.
The next day, Spanta told me, the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford, came to see him at his office and admitted there had been civilian casualties. Dunford did not respond to a request for comment. Cunningham said he did not recall whether he had discussed the strike with Spanta but did recall that “there was a considerable amount of confusion, as there often is in cases like these, about what had actually happened.”
During his tenure as national security adviser, Spanta recalled inquiring “not even weekly, sometimes daily” about the American military’s policy on civilian casualties. His inquiries were met with elliptical answers.
In an interview, Karzai told me the issue of civilian casualties had come to his attention in 2005. Victims and their families had begun coming to him with stories. He would let them speak directly to American generals, who he said did nothing. I asked why this might be. Karzai said he didn’t know, but he considered their inaction a sign that Americans had no regard for Afghan life. “They thought, well, this is a poor country, so why care? We were numbers and not treated as humans,” he said. “We need them, but that doesn’t mean they have the right to kill us.”
Karzai did not begin speaking publicly on the subject until July 2008, when a U.S. military attack killed 47 civilians attending a wedding party in western Afghanistan. Then came a November airstrike in Kandahar that killed an estimated 40 people at another wedding reception. A B-1 bomber killed as many as 147 civilians in Farah province in May 2009. That September, an F-15 fighter jet struck fuel tanks, killing over 90 civilians. In December, a NATO night raid killed 10 civilians. In 2010, U.S. special operations forces killed five civilians in Gardez, then another 27 in Uruzgan. That July, 52 civilians died in an airstrike in Helmand.
When he started speaking out in 2008, Spanta told me, Condoleezza Rice, then-U.S. secretary of state, called Karzai and warned him that if he continued to speak about this subject in public, it would impact the bilateral relationship. Karzai’s answer, Spanta told me, was to say, “Madam Rice, I saw on TV that Sarah Palin brought her children onto the stage during the campaign, and Biden also brought his grandchildren. This is good that you love your children. We are poor, but we, too, love our children, and I will continue to publicly condemn their killing.” (Rice did not respond to a request for comment.)
By February 18, 2013, Karzai had already barred Afghan military forces from calling in U.S. airstrikes. This was in an effort to minimize the number of civilian deaths that had begun escalating under President Barack Obama, who, with advice from counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, had opted for more drone strikes in operations. But after the hospital visit to see Aisha, Karzai said, he was “much tougher, angrier with the Americans,” so much so that he at times “wouldn’t even receive them,” he said.
On November 21, 2013, Karzai announced that he would not sign the bilateral security agreement between Afghanistan and the U.S. unless new conditions were met. When his team urged the president to sign the 10-year security pact that would allow continued U.S. presence in the country, according to a former adviser, Karzai responded by saying, “How will we answer to that 4-year-old girl? What is going to become of her?”
U.S. special operations forces first came to the Pech on a narrowly defined counterterrorism mission to hunt down Al Qaeda Arabs. But the sorties into the tributaries of the Pech River yielded little, and in 2011, driven by high casualties from ground troops, the U.S. military began relying more heavily on air power to patrol Kunar. In 2012, a strategic shift by the White House to focus on specific targets led to a 72 percent increase in drone strikes in Kunar. By late 2013, most conventional troops had left Kunar, and only special operations forces and CIA paramilitary forces remained. Without combat troops in the area to call in strikes, the September 7 strike was likely a so-called personality strike, aimed at a particular person on the Joint Prioritized Effects List. The target list is maintained and monitored by the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, which is based out of Bagram and Jalalabad airfields.
The strike may have been part of Operation Haymaker, a drone campaign that the SEAL-led Task Force East began in 2011, just as conventional forces were beginning to pull out of their Kunar bases. Operation Haymaker was at its peak in 2013, according to secret documents obtained and published by The Intercept, which showed that drones and manned spy planes were targeting everyone from small-time insurgents in valleys like Watapur and Waygal to well-known Al Qaeda figures.
Between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. airstrikes carried out as part of Operation Haymaker killed more than 200 people in Afghanistan. Among them, only 35 were intended targets. Those targets had been authorized through a two-part approval process that involved the decision traveling up from regional commands to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then to the secretary of defense, then to the National Security Council. The decision to strike, according to the policy in effect at that time, would only come in situations of “near certainty that the terrorist target is present” and “that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”
Yet the business of killing is rarely so well-defined. As the internal documents published by The Intercept revealed, the U.S. military had “become overly reliant on signals intelligence, or SIGNIT, to identify and ultimately hunt down and kill people,” despite acknowledging that SIGNIT capabilities were “poor” and “limited.”
A target of such a strike was often tracked using the signal from a particular phone number, which in turn might have come from a confidential informant. The quality of the information thus often depended on the credibility of the informant — their track record and previous standing with the U.S. military or the civilian intelligence community, a process that in many known cases has disregarded the complicated admixture of motives and incentives that drives events in Afghanistan. Many villagers interviewed about the drone strike invoked the Pashto word turborgalwi, a term devoted to the rivalries that emerge between cousins. Their guess was that the strike was a case of intra-tribal conflict taken to its bloodiest conclusion, that an informant could have been using his access to the Americans to settle a personal dispute in a feud. By 2013, cellphone towers had been erected across the country, even in remote parts of Watapur, and JSOC was increasingly relying on signals intelligence to guide targeting operations such as Haymaker.
According to the rules of engagement, the U.S. military must conduct a pre-strike assessment to evaluate collateral damage. The methodology remains classified, but the assessment must be accountable to the legal questions of distinction and proportionality. Does the strike distinguish civilians from combatants? Is the potential collateral damage of the strike in proportion to perceived military gains?
In a May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, Obama issued a policy that would serve as a guideline for counterterrorism operations whereby actions could only be taken against those who posed a “continuing, imminent threat to the American people,” and only if they would have “near certainty” of no civilian casualties. But the system remained replete with opportunities for error, according to a former U.N. official working on a registry of Taliban and Al Qaeda affiliates who are under Security Council embargo. The official, who was not authorized to speak with the press, stated that even a small error could mean tracking the wrong target.
When the Pentagon issues neat press releases about which commander was killed when, it does not mention the missteps and the oversights that kill, destroy, and upend lives. The precision strikes are not as precise as they would have us believe. Oftentimes, we don’t even know who we kill.
Even when we do, the U.S. military effectively categorizes every fighting age male as a legitimate target. Given that metric, according to interviews with Kunar residents, there were thus eight potential suspects in the truck that early fall day: three drivers, a shopkeeper, a teacher, a carpenter, a day laborer, a fruit seller, and a high school student. Because four of them had family members willing to vouch for their innocence, suspicion fell on Abdul Waheed, a 36-year-old carpenter; another Abdul Waheed, a 27-year-old recent graduate of a teacher-training institute with impeccable attendance records; Mohamadullah, a 16-year-old high school student; and Hayatullah, a 28-year-old fruit vendor who sold apples and grapes that fall.
Here is the full list of those who were in the truck that day, as far as I have been able to determine:
Mohamadullah (16), Osman (19), Abdul Waheed (25), Abdul Rashid (25), Abdul Rahman, Asadullah (28), Hayatullah (28), Abdul Waheed (36)
Tahira (24), Nadia (26), Khatima (45)
Jundullah (1 1/2), Soheil (3), Amir (4), Aisha (4)
During my travels in Kunar, I spoke with colleagues, family members, and neighbors of the four men and concluded that the chance of any of them being involved in insurgent activity was possible but slim. If the four suspects were Taliban or Al Qaeda, it would have been charitable to call them mid-ranking fighters. Regardless, “even if any and all of the men present had some military role, it doesn’t render the vehicle a military target,” longtime Afghanistan expert Michael Semple, who now teaches at Queen’s University Belfast, told me. “The U.S. relied on the theoretical doctrine of guilt by proximity.” Such willful killings of innocent civilians were, he said, serious violations of the laws of war and possible war crimes.
Among the key witnesses who were never interviewed by the Afghan government, the U.S. military, or the U.N. was Hamish Gul, a 35-year-old taxi driver from Quroo. His job was to travel up and down the road that connected Asadabad to Gambir, a trip he made daily. On September 7, 2013, Gul was cruising around the central square in Asadabad looking for passengers. He picked up a man and a woman, who were carrying a sack of rice, a tin can of cooking oil, and some matches from the market. He dropped them off in Gambir and was returning to Quroo when he saw a red pickup stalled on the shoulder of the road. He slowed down to ask the men if they needed help. The truck, Gul was told, had overheated. Gul did not know their names, but he recognized all the men, as most had been his customers in the past. He said his salams and drove on.
Ten minutes later, Gul said, “I heard big bullets.” Gul rushed back to where he had come from. Soon, the other driver Mohibullah and several villagers arrived. They untangled the mutilated body parts to prepare them for burial. Gul did not believe it was possible that the truck could have been commandeered in the 10-minute interval between his passing and returning, or that it would have been possible for the bodies of Arab fighters to have been spirited away by militants as some government officials speculated.
On November 17, 2013, a NATO condolence team traveled to Jalalabad to make what the military calls ex gratia payments, which officials stress are a courtesy, not a legal requirement. According to military records, four payments were made relating to the September 7, 2013 drone strike for the deaths of two men, one boy, and the injury of one girl. A signed accounting memo stated that the compensation for the victims was paid in full to a man named Ghulam Dastiger, who, in lieu of a signature, left a thumbprint. No one I spoke with in Watapur Valley had ever heard of him.
Additional reporting by Danielle Mackey. Research by Sheelagh McNeill.
Correction: Jan. 29, 2018
A previous version of this article referred to the population of Asadabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s Kunar province, as “half a million.” In 2013, according to Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Office, the estimated population of Asadabad was 32,400, out of 428,800 for the entire province.