Way up there in blue: Seven children dead in Kabul — who is to blame?

Who killed those kids as the U.S. left Afghanistan? Donald Rumsfeld? George Custer and Barack Obama? You and me?

Published August 27, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

A military transport plane flies over as Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gathered around the incinerated husk of a vehicle targeted and hit earlier Sunday afternoon by an American drone strike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Getty Images/MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES)
A military transport plane flies over as Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gathered around the incinerated husk of a vehicle targeted and hit earlier Sunday afternoon by an American drone strike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Getty Images/MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES)

United Flight 244 from Atlanta to Denver sits on the runway. Delayed. Sept. 16, 2021. My fellow Georgians, clad in SEC college football tribal fan wear, carry on industrial sized bags of Chick-fil-A. Soldiers fresh from basic at Fort Benning dot the cabin. Dustin, from Paducah, Kentucky, sits to my right. He is the same age as the war in Afghanistan, which is now over.

"You hate it too?" the woman to my left asks. Before I can answer, she whispers she has to pee. We clear out as Tracy breezes by in a halter kimono displaying a diamond strand belly button ring. 

I'm bound for Wyoming where my wife has an art show at Sheridan College. My flight plans? Catch up on "Ted Lasso." Watch the NFL. Finish this book on George Custer. Grade. I teach English at a magnet high school in the tony northeast suburbs of metro Atlanta. Previously, I taught refugee high school students at a charter school in Clarkston, Georgia ("The South's Ellis Island"). My students were from Afghanistan, Burundi, Congo, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Myanmar, Nepal. I left the school, but not the students. 

Memories of my students blur with images from the final shot of our longest war. On Aug. 29, a Predator drone strike killed seven Afghan children. I check my phone for updates. I have no ties to the Ahmadi family from Kabul. But I want their deaths, and the war in Afghanistan, to mean something. 

 Dustin yawns. Later, we'll debate college hoops and rank the all-time best Kentucky Wildcat outside shooters, but for now he closes his eyes. I look out the window across the tarmac to the pines. Michael Herr wrote that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along. That long trail begins just up I-75 from this runway, but after the wars of this century, where does it end?    

"OK," Tracy says, floating back to her seat, "confession." 

She tells me she will have to go again. Earlier, she had two White Claws with her Adderall and Ativan. She's headed to a girl's weekend in Durango. It's her first time flying since the pandemic. Mine too, I say. We joke about remembering how and when she laughs the stones against her belly bounce.

"Folks," the pilot announces, "looks like we need to peek under the hood back at the gate." 

The cabin groans. Tracy arches back, sighs and sinks into her seat. 

"Thank you again for your patience." 

To Tracy, to wit: I don't hate flying. Even in the middle seat. Even on United. Even five days after the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I want to see Alice's artwork. I want to drive through wide open spaces and stand where Lakota arrows filled the sky. But that's not all. I want someone held accountable for the final shot in our longest war. I want you to see my refugee students and what they saw in America. And I want this flight to be over, but first it must begin. 

*  *  *

First day of school, 2016. I fumble with keys at my classroom door. Late for lunch. Inside the room sits my personal laptop, phone, wallet. You never know. The school for refugees is housed in an abandoned, Cold War-era Methodist church. The linoleum tile classroom floor is peeling. The overhead fluorescent lights flicker. The classroom, with its lattice barred windows, overlooks the Clarkston city jail. 

Are my students as nervous as me? They have reason to be uneasy. The world keeps changing its mind about refugees. Sympathy swelled the previous summer after the corpse of a two-year-old Syrian washed ashore in Greece. 

Are my students as nervous as me? They have reason to be uneasy. The world keeps changing its mind about refugees. Sympathy swelled the previous summer after the corpse of a two-year-old Syrian washed ashore in Greece. Syrian children fill our lower grades. Most are cocooned in silence. But not all. A few middle school boys approached me before school, eyes wide: Are you army? Police

No, but I am the one white male in the building and the only teacher who can't operate a key. 

By the summer of 2016, sympathy had waned. Presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a wall on America's southern border. As president, he'll issue an executive order banning foreign nationals of seven Muslim states. He will lament refugees from "shithole countries." That same year, a gubernatorial candidate will drive a "Deportation Bus" through Clarkston with a message: "Fill this Bus with Illegals."

 Hearing the jangle of keys, Sabir, a senior from Afghanistan, emerges from the copy room. 

"This happens," he says, as he approaches. "New teacher. Old building. Funny door." 

Sabir puts the key halfway into the lock, turns, and click

"See?" he says, smiling. 

I thank him. 

"No problem, Mr. Jeremy, I got you. But your things? Back there? They're safe. Promise." 

We go downstairs, eat lunch, and for the next five years my door stays open. 

*  *  *

Aug. 29, 2021. Zemari Ahmadi, age 43, sits in Kabul morning traffic. His boss forgot his laptop at home. Can Zemari drop by and pick it up? Can he also pick up a former colleague who needs help with a passport? Another co-worker needs a ride to the office. Can Zemari help? 

Zemari is an engineer at Nutrition and Education International, a California based NGO. NEI provides food for refugees and displaced rural Afghans. For 15 years, Zemari has done it all. A famine now grips the country. One crisis compounds another. American forces are leaving. Helicopters fill the skies as the streets of Kabul bustle and boil. But Zemari has seen the end before. He's seen the Taliban leave; the mujahideen leave; the Soviets leave. Now, he must leave too. 

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NEI has petitioned American officials for the Ahmadi family to resettle as refugees in America. The family's bags are packed. His children Zamir (age 19), Faisal (16), Farzad (9), and Eman (3) play with their cousins at home as they await word. America, America. The invitation, the incantation. 

As Zemari drives through Kabul, nameless CIA and Air Force personnel across the ocean watch his every move. Along with an array of 368 cameras, including advanced geothermal imaging, the Predator carries four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles with 20-pound warheads. 

*  *  *

The final shot in our longest war is made possible by so many snowflakes. Position papers. Orders. Dictums. Donald Rumsfeld, America's only two-time secretary of defense, coined his memos "snowflakes." The tempest they created swept America into a massive Cold War escalation, post-Vietnam.

In Gerald Ford's White House, Rumsfeld led a staff shakeup at the CIA to install George H.W. Bush as director. Together, they positioned "Team B," a group of hard-right ideologues, to inflate the CIA's own estimates of Soviet strength. The expansion of American weapon systems, in peacetime, swelled. The defense budget soared; so did our escalation in Afghanistan. Declassified CIA documents, released in 2018, show the U.S. sent weapons to rebel groups 10 months before the Soviet invasion. "We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War," said Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzeziński.

Donald Rumsfeld led a staff shakeup at the CIA, installing George H.W. Bush as director and positioning a group of hard-right ideologues, to inflate the CIA's own estimates of Soviet strength and create a massive arms expansion.

With the election of Reagan, Operation Cyclone directed the flow of more than $20 billion of aid and weapons into the hands of mujahideen forces. The CIA also led a sweeping study-abroad program, and recruited more than 100,000 Arab fighters to Afghanistan. Overnight, the USSR dissolved. On every count of Soviet strength, Team B was wrong and their trillion-dollar dreamcasts sank America into debt, boosted defense budgets, enriched contractors and flooded the globe with weapons. And weapons need targets.

"There aren't any good targets in Afghanistan," Rummy told defense officials after 9/11. But why attack Iraq when al-Qaida was in Afghanistan? Rummy explained: "There are lots of good targets in Iraq." To sell the war, Rumsfeld claimed Iraq had chemical weapons, links with al-Qaida, and the war would be swift. Wrong on all counts, Rummy was right on Afghanistan. No targets were left. Even the 6th-century Buddhas, carved into the Valley of Bamiyan, were gone. Dynamite blew the heads to dust. After Operation Cyclone, warlords, heroin and human traffickers, and zealots fought in the ruins. By 1994, Arab recruits left to show off their new skills. One superpower had been laid low. What was one more?   

Six hours after United Flight 175 hit the second tower, a snowflake: hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] @ same time not only UBL [Usama bin Laden]....go massive — sweep it all up — Things related & not. 

A brief and incomplete history of things related and not include more than 900,000 dead, 37 million refugees, and 1,598 Afghan children maimed or killed from 2016 to 2020 by American drone strikes. 

I have no visibility into who the bad guys are in Afghanistan … Rummy's snowflake from Sept. 8, 2003 reads … we are woefully deficient in human intelligence. 

*  *  *

Somewhere over Oklahoma, Tracy shows me pictures of her kids as her voice trails off. We both have two children, the same ages (10 and 7). We compare notes on metro Atlanta school mask policies and Zoom classrooms and vaccines. She starts to cry. "It's all too much," she says. "Last year." 

Unlike the panic attack she'll have when we encounter wind shears over Colorado's front range and our plane is forced to circle Denver's airport until we detour to Colorado Springs where the flight attendant announces our missed connections (Sheridan, Vegas, LAX) and a man up front stands and yells about a missed tee time, I'm able to help. I offer Tracy my other earbud. Together, we watch "Ted Lasso." Season two. Episode four.

Ted — recently divorced, working in England — buys his son an expensive drone for Christmas. He tries to connect with the boy, but he's laser-focused on his new toy. To boost Ted's spirits, his boss takes him Christmas shopping for poor British children. The grateful kids sing carols. Ted smiles. Tracy smiles too. And for a moment, even if it is just a play of light on a laptop: all is calm, all is bright.

*  *  *

In a different zip code, yellow tape would corridor off the courtyard. But in the Khaje Bughra neighborhood of Kabul, veteran war reporter Matthieu Aikins and photographer Jim Huylebroek find their way to the crowded courtyard of the Ahmadi home and into an updated scene from hell. 

 The white Toyota Corolla lays smoldering in a heap. Broken glass covers the courtyard. Bones are scattered in the bushes. Human flesh and streaks of blood cover the clay walls. The blood of children. 

After the blast, orange flames jumped from the Corolla to the courtyard. Neighbors doused the fire with what little water they had. 

Over the phone in the spring of 2022, Aikins tells me that he and Huylebroek were the first reporters on the scene that Saturday morning. The crowd was angry but not hostile. 

"You can hear it," he said, "in their voices. The people were outraged and they wanted us to convey that outrage."  

Unlike with strikes in rural Afghanistan, Aikins and the investigative team at the New York Times were able to locate the scene and puzzle out pieces. The story from U.S. officials of a "righteous strike" against an "ISIS facilitator" didn't fit. 

The wailing from the grieving family were echoes from the initial screams of terror. 

"There was screaming from everyone," Ahmadi's eldest daughter Samaria told CNN reporters of the blast that swallowed her family. "At first I thought this is an attack on the whole of Afghanistan and everywhere must be taken by terrorists. I did not know that the attack was only on our house."

Reporters also noted among the wreckage: a child's slipper, a twisted plastic toy.

Zemari's brother Romal was on the first floor when the Reaper fired. He and his wife Arezo rushed to the courtyard where their three children were playing. None survived. 

"Arezo witnessed her family scattered in pieces," Dina Hamidi, a relative, told Turkish World News. "She saw her two-year-old daughter's head separated from her body." 

Zemari's nine-year-old son, Farzad, was in the car too. He liked to park the car with his dad. Of Farzad, a neighbor told Al Jazeera, "We only found his legs." 

Their coffins will be small. The funeral public. The survivors at risk. Where will they turn? To what authority? Who will hold the killers responsible? 

Zemari's brother, Emal, whose three-year-old daughter Malika was killed in the blast, told AP reporters: "The USA should find the person who did this."

As Aikins and Huylebroek depart on their motorcycle, more reporters and camera crews flock to the Ahmadi home. During his 13-year career in Afghanistan, Aikins covered the 2013 slaughter of civilians by U.S. Special Forces units in Nerkh and the 2015 destruction of a Kunduz hospital by U.S. and Afghan forces. He is no stranger to such scenes. Back in the house, he alerts his editors, eats breakfast (eggs sunny-side-up with tomatoes) and goes outside to smoke a Gauloise cigarette. Then it hits him. 

"I don't know if it was the intensity of what had happened over the last two weeks," he tells me, "but I cried a bit in the yard from the emotion of it. And after I was like, this is not going to stand. We are going to tell the truth about what happened here." 

*  *  *

Students wear uniforms every day, with one exception. International Day. On this day, Sudanese boys glide by in white flowing Jalabiya while Nepali girls — in orange blouses and saffron scarves — float into second period from behind the clouds. Teachers dress in saris, Scottish tartan skirts, and kente hats. 

I keep it local. Braves baseball cap, blue jeans, white T-shirt. Weekend Dad Wandering Home Depot. The Syrian middle school boys (still in Axe Body Spray) wear black jeans, white T-shirts, and checkered keffiyeh. They give me big thumbs up. 

"Fresh, Mr. Jeremy, fresh!" they say.

Before lunch, students sing Burmese folk songs and dance and drum to Liberian beats. Nepali girls dance in unison, and the whole hall comes apart with the Congolese rumba. At lunch, we feast on plantains from Burundi, Kurdish flatbread and yogurt, falafel from Syria, shawarma from Iraq and coconut-sweetened Halwa from Nepal. By the end, no one can move.  

And on this day of cultural goodwill, not all are so accepting. As we break down tables and stack the chairs, Sabir puts his hand on my shoulder and shakes his head. 

 "I'm sorry, but this won't do, Mr. Jeremy. This outfit. Next year, I got you." 

I laugh and tell him that he'll be graduated and gone. 

"For this, I'll come back," he says. "Promise." 

*  *  *

The final shot in our longest war is made possible by Neal and Linden Blue. The Blue Brothers. CEOs of General Atomics. The world's leader in drone technology and fathers of Predator and Reaper. 

At Yale, they're Air Force ROTC, on staff at Yale Daily, and Skull & Bones (Geronimo's skull and bones). In 1957, as cover boys for LIFE magazine, they fly around Latin America in a TriPacer-22 and befriend Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. After Yale, they buy a banana plantation in Nicaragua. The decades to come yield much fruit, but few bananas. The coastline buzzes as the CIA trains for the Bay of Pigs. Neal gets caught up before the invasion flying over Cuban airspace. For 12 days, he sits in a Cuban jail for taking pictures of Cuba's nationalized oil refineries. 

The Blues abandon farming life and venture into oil and gas extraction and real estate acquisition. They enrich and spill uranium in Oklahoma on Native American land. Later, with the rise of the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, they experiment with pilotless planes similar to the Nazi V-1 rockets.

The unmanned kamikaze project shifts to surveillance when the brothers purchase General Atomics. Predator appears over Bosnia in the mid-'90s and surveils Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The Blues try to sell more Predators to the military, but the Cold War is over. The banana stand closed. 

Then: 9/11. Flocks of armed robotic pterodactyls take flight. Predator fires the first shot in the search for bin Laden (Operation Geronimo). It misses. Yet many shots remain. How many? Legion. Since the CIA runs the drone program, exact figures remain unknown. But Forbes estimates Neal's recent net worth at $3 billion and Linden's at $4 billion. "That's just part of the capitalist world," Linden once told CNN about his industry, "which has provided so much to so many."  

*  *  *

Inside a Denver hotel lobby, I stand in line with an Ohio wedding party. It's 2 a.m. My back pocket is flush with United Airlines vouchers. Restrictions apply. I hand over the hotel voucher. 

"This is not Mainstay Suites," the clerk says, handing me back the voucher.

I've taken the shuttle to the wrong hotel. See the fine print. I apologize and say that I'm an absent-minded English teacher who left his glasses at home. She stares at me. I'll take a room, I say, any room. Mainstay is one mile down the road, she says. My flight for Sheridan boards in less than five hours, I say, I just want to sleep. She nods, runs my credit card, and copies my driver's license.

"Your card was declined," she says, handing me back the expired card.

The new Discover card is back in Atlanta. On the kitchen window sill. With my glasses. 

"Do you take Apple Pay?" I ask. 

"We need a valid credit card," she says, without looking up from her screen.

 I show her the digital Visa card on the Apple Pay wallet app. She says she needs a credit card. "But it is a credit card," I say, pointing to my phone. 

She says she will need to call someone but makes no move. The eyes of a thousand aggrieved Buckeyes are upon us. She asks me to return to the back of the line. I yield to the pasty pilgrims and entire epochs pass before I return to the front desk. I ask if we can try again. 

"I am going to have to ask you to leave the premises," the clerk says, "before I call the police." 

"For using Apple Pay?" 

"For failure to leave the premises."  

She picks up the phone and dials. "Hello. Yes. I need an officer. We have a disturbance." 

I sit down on the lobby sofa. She's bluffing. An Ohioan purchases Doritos. Is she bluffing? Mainstay Suites is 1.3 miles away. I grab my bag, double-check my back pocket, and head for the door.

Maybe it's the long flight. Maybe the pandemic. But I feel a presence. Invisible hands. I'm walking in America. Anywhere, America. Or maybe Mars. A sudden gust of swirling dust. A shark-nosed police cruiser glides by. Anchor Church: You are Loved. The stars blaze.

Traffic lights sway on cables as tumbleweed rolls across Tower Road. The silhouetted purple mountains are not without majesty. 7/11. Conoco. Scents of sage, cottonwood. Chains of charter schools, check-cashing places. Catamount Construction. Cranes, bulldozers, giant mounds of earth. Maybe it's the long flight. Maybe the pandemic. But I feel a presence. Invisible hands. I'm walking in America. Anywhere, America. Or maybe Mars. A sudden gust of swirling dust. A shark-nosed police cruiser glides by. Anchor Church: You are Loved. The stars blaze. Rent this Space. A man approaches pushing a grocery cart. Hispanic. Older. Camo hoodie. Dallas Cowboys cap. The cart's left front wheel capers. 

"Hey," he calls. He asks if I have heard about the party. 

I confess. I don't know about the party. Ah, man, he says. Well, no problem, he tells me. He says he bets for a fact that the party is almost over anyway.  

*  *  *

Monday morning. Winter break approaches. Cold. First period starts in 30 minutes. My classroom slowly comes into light. A desk lamp. A lava lamp. A bookshelf lamp that casts a buttery glow on the plastic "Moana" figures who keep watch near the classroom set copies of "Animal Farm." Goodwill rugs dot the floor. My dry-erase board has once again been tagged by a Nepali ninth-grader with a penchant for after-school anime-style renditions of her English teacher. Poor guy. Perpetually bemused.  

Sabir appears at my door. Shoulders slouched, he slides into an undersized desk and sighs. 

"I'm lost, Mr. Jeremy," he says.  

The Common Application college essay prompt has asked him to describe in 500 words or so a meaningful story related to his life. 

"Why this question?" 

He can't do it, he says. His life? Pretty boring. Why must he write about his life? Now he won't be able to go to college. Now, no good job awaits him. I stifle a smile. I've learned not to underestimate the cyclopic hold of applications in the life of a refugee. 

I invite him to the dry-erase board. We talk about life as a series of choices along a journey. How did he get here? What were the steps? Sabir taps the marker top and then writes: Afghanistan, Refugee Camp, America. He outlines that journey. We discuss. Then I ask him to think of what he saw, smelled, heard or touched. What stood out? Three things. Sabir waits and writes: Snow. Dust. Sky

I wonder, I say, if a good start might be to write a paragraph on each of those items on the board. 

Sabir takes a seat, opens a yellow spiral notebook, and writes. I play music — a student-inspired playlist filled with instrumental songs from the video game soundtrack "Halo 5: Guardians."

To the brink of the bell, Sabir writes. 

"OK, Mr. Jeremy, OK," he says, standing up. "I got you." 

The next morning he's back. Each morning he's back. By Friday, all that's left is Sabir's story. But that story belongs to Sabir. He'll have to tell you. This story goes: As the dinosaur radiator rumbled awake each morning and Moana and Maui kept watch, Sabir carved from the past a vision for his future.

*  *  *

The blue light of "SportsCenter" floods room 206 at Mainstay Suites. I close the book on Custer, pull up a chair and open the window. Washington beat the Giants on a last-second field goal. It is too late to sleep. I scroll Twitter: pictures of Afghanistan, pundits on Afghanistan, Afghanistan in peril. A football floats in slow motion, end over end. The Giants hang their heads. I try to picture Rosebud Creek and the bluffs and prairie gone mad with color and smoke. Tractor-trailers whine in the distance. I wait for sunrise. The blue light pulses and room 206 floats like a fishbowl. I close my eyes. Once we called Washington the Redskins. We don't use that name anymore.

*  *. *

By year two, when new Syrian students ask if I am police or special forces, I stare into the middle distance and lower my voice. Shirttails askew, ties crooked, they huddle closer. It's true, I say, I have received advanced training. Oohs come from the crowd of "Call of Duty" players. In what? they ask.  

"Books," I whisper. 

"Books," they whisper back. 

"Books," I say. 

"Books?" they ask.


A collective groan and laughter follows. In high school, they will later read "The Diary of Anne Frank," "A Long Way Gone" and "Persepolis." The personal essays they write will be filled with superheroes, annoying siblings, grandparents they miss and homes they barely know. 

The unofficial anthem of the school that year is "Country Roads" by John Denver. 

A student will call out … Country roads? … and a chorus follows … Take me home! 

Students sing on the way to soccer practice, on the bus back from away games, off-key in the kitchen while washing dishes after lunch. To the place … I belong! 

A group of Burmese kids sing it at the talent show … Life is old there, older than the trees … their voices almost trembling.  

Before International Day, Sabir returns. He waits by my door. His classmates swarm and bury him in high-fives and hugs. We talk about his college classes and his plan to transfer to a college in New England. I warn him of the cold. He smiles. "The cold is my friend, Mr. Jeremy," he says. 

Handing me an Adidas duffel bag, he says, "For you."    

Inside: a black perahan tunban and a black velvet vest embroidered in red, green and gold. I change in the bathroom and step into the hallway with a smile that matches Sabir's. We embrace, pose for a picture, and head downstairs. 

Before we break bread, we all join hands in a wide circle across the assembly hall. The Iraqi and Syrian students teach us how to dance the dabke. On the heels of our first and final lesson, the exam falls fast. The music begins and we swing and kick, haltingly, until we find a rhythm. Smiles alight the circle. Around the hall we go — students, coaches, teachers — swinging and kicking and gathering speed as the music picks up. The circle begins to blur when Mohammad, a senior from Iraq, breaks away and sashays to the center. His hands cut the air, his feet float. A group of friends break off to form a small circle around him. Mohammad is spinning now, really going. We whistle and roar and clap and call for more. Mohammad rises higher. Louder, we cheer. Closing his eyes, he soars. 

*  *  *

The final shot in our longest war is made possible by the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Barack Obama. Speaking in Oslo before a dinner of lobster consommé with shellfish tartare, Obama pledged to close Guantánamo Bay and ban torture. "Let us reach for the world that ought to be," Obama said, "that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls."

The first Hellfire missile of the Obama presidency tore through the roof of the Qureshi family home in North Waziristan, Pakistan. Jan. 26, 2009. Flames licked the left torso of 13-year-old Faheem Querishi. Blinded, he ran for the door. A boy on fire. Outside, he collapsed. Forty days later, he woke up in a hospital with his scorched torso stitched together. Doctors saved his right eye, but not his left. 

The blast killed two uncles and an older cousin. None were al-Qaida or Taliban. For Faheem, the oldest male in a family of 14 cousins, the blast marked the end of his student days. Manual labor, with a body mangled, awaited. 

Days later, Obama announced the end of American torture. Yet its architects received reassignments and promotions. The lights at Guantánamo Bay stayed on as drones spawned to new skies. 

Obama praised the surgical precision of drones, but their value was efficiency. Why detain or torture suspects when you can shoot them from the sky? Strikes took on a uniquely American art form. Signature Strikes. Decapitation Strikes. The Double Tap. 

"Turns out," Obama told aides in 2012, "I am rather good at killing people. Didn't know that was going to be a strong suit of mine."

Obama praised the surgical precision of drones, but their value was efficiency. Why detain or torture suspects when you can shoot them from the sky? Strikes took on a uniquely American art form. Signature Strikes. Decapitation Strikes. The Double Tap.

After blowing a hole through the Qureshi home, the misses kept coming. For every bad guy killed, the sky itself collapsed on untold innocents. Take the drone strike in 2009 that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader. The 16 previous attempts killed 280 to 410 civilians. Consider Obama's first drone-assisted airstrike in northern Yemen: Fifty-five people killed, including 21 children. Ten of the children were under the age of 5, and of the 12 women killed, five were pregnant. An October 2015 drone-assisted airstrike on a Kunduz trauma hospital in Afghanistan was one for the books. Forty-two killed in that one: Twenty-four patients, 14 staff members and four caretakers. Victims were shot while they fled the flames. Trauma patients burned in their beds. Several members of the medical staff were decapitated. 

If Obama rewrote the book on extralegal drone assassinations, his 2020 memoir, "A Promised Land," settles few scores. Drones are mentioned only 11 times. However, Obama reveals a burden straight from the pages of Kipling or Graham Greene. He writes of the "desperate young men" he droned:

I wanted somehow to save them — send them to school, give them a trade, drain them of the hate that had been filling their heads. And yet the world they were a part of, and the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them instead.

Faheem Qureshi already attended school. Chemistry and games of badminton filled his head. But the machinery Obama commanded allowed for no such variables. To save the boys, we had to kill them. 

"The machinery of it started becoming too easy," Obama admitted to Stephen Colbert in December 2020, "and I actually had to impose internally a substantial set of reforms in the process."

Obama built a drone leviathan, tweaked the decision matrix, and handed the keys to his successor. 

"If there is a list of tyrants in the world," Faheem told author and reporter Spencer Ackerman in 2016, "to me, Obama will be put on that list by his drone program."

Tyranny, however, is in the eye of the beholder. Look at Obama. Podcasting with Bruce Springsteen. Producing Netflix originals. Partying on his 60th birthday at his Martha's Vineyard estate with Jay Z, Beyoncé, Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Erykah Badu. The menu (inspired by Questlove) featured Spam Musubi made with plant-based beef, pork and eggs. The cheesesteak egg rolls consisted of Impossible beef and dairy-free cheese. The vegan Hawaiian pineapple-shaped cake was courtesy of PETA. So few animals suffered for the summer soiree. Alicia Keys and John Legend serenaded into the night. Cocktail glasses clinked. Cigar smoke drifted to the stars.  

Among the stars, Obama relaxes. With celebrities, he can perform. Crack wise. He doesn't have to explain, equivocate or retreat into the passive voice. Remember the 2010 White House Correspondents Dinner? Kim Kardashian! Justin Bieber! Chef Bobby Flay! That year, Obama quipped:

"The Jonas Brothers are here; they're out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don't get any ideas. I have two words for you, 'Predator drones.' You will never see it coming."

Indeed. Ask Faheem. Or if you could, the Ahmadi children. They never do. 

*  *  *

The man with his hands on my thighs in the Denver International Airport says he will be taking a swab from the inseam of my pants and my shoes. He swabs and stands and gestures toward a seat. It will just be a minute, he explains. I'm grounded at the TSA security annex. My wallet, with my license, sits back in Room 206. On the microwave. The place I wouldn't forget it. Am I losing it? 

The agent, Van, returns and says he needs to inspect my bag. He asks permission. Permission granted. I apologize for the hassle. Van says they see it more and more. 

"Early-onset dementia?" I ask. 

"You'd be surprised," he says. "People forget stuff. Basics. Especially these days." 

Van swabs my computer, running shoes and books. He runs the tests again. When he returns, he says we will now wait for a call from the Identity Verification Call Center. He asks if the book on Custer is any good. I tell him the timeline jumps, but I like it. I mention I'm meeting my wife in Sheridan and we're visiting Little Bighorn. 

"Romantic getaway?" he asks. 

"During our honeymoon in Charleston, we may have spent an afternoon at Fort Sumter," I say. 

"Patient lady," Van says. 

Van says he used to love history, but after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was done with history. Now, he reads Robert Jordan and the "Wheel of Time" series. Am I familiar? Van describes the plot in elaborate detail. I try to keep up. Post-apocalypse. Children of light. One Power

Van tells me he's never been to Little Bighorn, but last summer he took his mother and daughter to Yellowstone. His mom flew in from Boston and they rented a car. When they arrived in the park, they were shocked by the traffic. His mom worked at the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. Why the long line of cars? Traffic, here? So they sat. And waited. And then they saw.

"Huge buffalo," Van says, "strolling down the middle of the road. All ancient, shaggy. Eye to eye with SUVs and trucks. My mom was hysterical. In tears. Laughing and calling out, 'Hello, Buffalo!'"

I suggest there aren't many buffalo in Boston. No, Van says, but there were in Vietnam. She came to America in 1980. Van was born the next year. His mom was the "refugee whisperer." In the camps, she helped people with paperwork and the daily tasks of survival. In America, she threw herself into her work at the RMV and did not lose touch. Now, she visits old friends in Philly, Houston, San Jose and New Orleans. They throw parties. The boat people. Take pictures. Tell stories.

"And get this," Van says, "she still hasn't learned to drive." 

I tell Van his mother is a hero. I tell him that for five years, I taught high school English at a school in Atlanta for refugees. One thing the kids had in common was powerful parents like his mother.

Van nods and asks what the parent-teacher conferences were like. 

I try to describe the line of families waiting outside my room. Afghan and Iraqi parents. Congolese mothers. A single dad from Myanmar. Families from Syria, Sudan, Nepal. Siblings playing Candy Crush and tending to toddlers. The English they knew eclipsed my twisted tongue. Once they were farmers, engineers, teachers, upholsterers. Now, they worked third shift at chicken factories as their children wrote on mice and men and how caged birds could sing. What did I know? What could I tell them? This was my refrain: Your child is learning. Your child is happy. Your child is safe

"Right," Van says. "And I bet a few parents asked you to spank their kid if they were out of line."

Some made that request, I say, yes. 

He chuckles: "I told my daughter the other day after our Zoom conference with her teacher, 'Kid, be glad you don't have to deal with a wound-up Vietnamese mother on a mission.'" 

Van's radio buzzes. The IVCC. Yes, he says. Got it. The gates will be opened. I pick up my bag and extend my fist. Thanks, Van, I say. We dap. Absolutely, he says. Good luck up there. And then he tells me to keep an eye out for the buffalo. 

*  *  *

The food Zemari distributed was a protein rich, soy-based naan. According to the NEI website, more than 125,000 farmers had been trained across 34 provinces to utilize the seven soy processing plants in Afghanistan. On one of his final stops, Zemari went to the police station to coordinate drop-off locations with the new Taliban police in Kabul. The drought, in late August 2021, was dire.  

Now, a year later, Afghanistan teeters on collapse. According to a May 11, 2022, report from the International Rescue Committee, 97% of Afghans are in poverty and 20 million face extreme hunger. This humanitarian catastrophe is projected to kill more people than the war. One million children are in danger of dying. The engine driving this collapse? Economic shock triggered by American sanctions. 

Upon withdrawal, the U.S. seized $9.5 billion from Afghanistan's central bank, effectively nuking the Afghan economy. President Biden allocated $3.5 billion for American families who were victims of 9/11. The stubborn fact that none of al-Qaida were Afghan is lost to the wind.

"The reality is, the Afghan people didn't stand up to the Taliban," lawyers for the American families seeking payment claimed. "They bear some responsibility for the condition they're in." 

Everyday Afghans can no longer access their own savings. Public service employees are no longer paid. Afghans abroad cannot send money home. The borders are closed, prohibiting migrant work. Premature Afghan babies weigh less than two pounds. To survive, some Afghans have sold their children.

If Operation Cyclone triggered one civilization-level collapse in Afghanistan, the current sanctions imposed by our government will provide a less explosive, more pervasive, totalizing ruin.  

On his way home, Zemari stopped at the office. From his car, he unloaded and filled several large plastic canisters and put them into the vehicle. The substance Zemari was stockpiling? Water. His neighborhood had lost water. He'd been delivering it to his neighbors. 

American forces, after a wayward drone strike, typically offer the surviving family a condolence payment of $5,000. In some cases, in rural Afghanistan, a goat is offered too. 

Who won America's longest war? According to the Cost of War Report, the Pentagon spent $14 trillion on the war on terror. Almost half that treasure has gone to military contractors, including five main corporations: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

The Ahmadi family still resides in Kabul. A condolence payment was issued in November. There was no mention of the amount or whether the family had been offered a goat. 

"I like to think grief is the price we pay for truly loving someone," @TedLasso tweeted on Sept. 21, 2021. "And it's worth every penny."

*  *  * 

The white Toyota Corolla pulls down the narrow alleyway. Farzad, age nine, bolts outside. His siblings and cousins give chase. Zemari stops the car and opens the door as Farzad hops onto his lap. Behind the wheel, Farzad peers over the dash. This is their ritual. Picture an open road. Pretend America. So many days have not yet broken. Days of snow and sky and pine. The monstrous blessedness of being wraps them into a moment. A split second. May it never end. 

Before we get off the phone, I ask Matthieu Aikins about guilt. Does he feel any upon leaving Afghanistan? He says guilt is not a useful emotion. If people tell you you made a difference enough times, you should believe it. During his time in Afghanistan, he saw that actions, even in the face of so much catastrophe, were not pointless."We should resist these narratives of our own guilt and the piety of our own privilege," he says, "and look more at the specifics of our life and what we actually do."

Sabir's family filled an entire row at graduation. Cousins, nephews, nieces. So many variations on Sabir. There was middle-aged Sabir: barrel-chested, formidable in a black suit and green tie. There was preteen Sabir, a tad unsure, the same flop of black hair. Sabir's smile rested with his aunt. His eyes belonged to his mother. When his name was called, Sabir received his diploma, and presented his mother with a yellow rose. They hugged and held tight. The family stood and applauded as a photographer circled, snapping pictures of mother and son who swayed in an embrace at the still point of the world. 

 "I can still hear Zemari's joking and laughing." Dr. Kwon, the CEO of NEI, tells me by email. He and his wife considered Zemari their "Afghan son." Everyone, he says, loved Zemari. They spent countless hours traveling together and talking about their families, work and life. It is Zemari's laugh he remembers most. Dr. Kwon writes: "Nothing can bring him, his three sons, or his six nieces and nephews back, but the U.S. government can and must help the innocent people impacted and directly at risk because of this deadly 'mistake,' by bringing them to safety so they can rebuild their lives."

*  *  *

The Wyoming sky stretches indigo, an endless blue. Alice and I read the names of the U.S. soldiers on the obelisk at Last Stand Hill. In Sitting Bull's prophetic vision before the battle, American soldiers pinwheeled through the sky, bleeding from the ears. On this late September afternoon, sunlight floods the windswept prairie and catches my wife's blonde hair. 

"Does the monument," Alice asks, "remind you of some lost lawn decor?" 

The Vermont granite feels off. No jingle jangle here. No climbing cadence or trumpet calls: Custer! That teetotaler, raconteur and hoarder who kept a pet bulldog, peacock, porcupine and a Cheyenne wife. He dashed first for Lakota women and children. Hostages, human shields. Just like 1868 at the Washita River in Oklahoma. But the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors swarmed and now fate anchors him to this stone. A stone that serves as the bookend to Plymouth Rock. After this victory, the fate of the Lakota was sealed. Custer's legacy? He is our final real estate agent. Destiny, manifest. 

Amongst the Winnebagos"Amongst the Winnebagos," gouache on paper, cut and collaged (Painting by Alice Stone-Collins)

Later, Alice will paint the monument surrounded by pink flamingos. 

Home is different things to different people. On these bluffs, I think of the boulders at Riverside Park by our home in Atlanta and a King Edward cigar box filled with bone-white arrowheads. The arrowheads were a boyhood gift from a neighbor, an old-timer, who told me to watch my step — we were surrounded by Indian burial grounds. Here, I try to picture a vast camp of 10,000 displaced people in the valley below. The gathering stretched for four miles. The last stand of Native America. The U.S. government had offered the Lakota $6 million for the Black Hills. The Lakota countered: $70 million. The U.S. countered with a war of extinction. Reservation. Genocide

Alice says she wants to walk the circle once more. And once more we circle the bluffs.

An apology from the U.S. government in 2009 acknowledged "a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies'' against Native peoples. It was signed in obscurity and folded into the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act.

An apology from the United States government wasn't swift in coming. In 2009, S.J.Res.14, a joint congressional resolution, acknowledged "a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies'' against Native peoples. At the end of the resolution, the U.S. government absolved itself from any financial liability. President Obama did not deliver the decree during his historic visits to Standing Rock or the Crow reservation. No tribal leaders were invited to Washington. The resolution was signed in obscurity and folded into Section 8113 of the $630 billion 2010 Defense Appropriations Act, which also earmarked $4.5 billion for drones.

As Alice and I walk to our rental car, back in Washington at the Pentagon, an apology for the final shot in America's longest war is issued to no one. The Ahmadi family is not present at the Friday press conference. No Pashto translator is made available. The names of the family are not mentioned. An investigation is announced. No fault will be found. The strike was a mistake, but who's to blame? 

Maybe Don Rumsfeld. The brothers Blue. Obama too. You and me and George Custer. We, the people, are busy. We aren't feeling so good, actually. We're heavily armed. We need to speak to a manager. We got the wrong car. We forget things. We're masked, vaccinated. Or we're not. We can summon feelings of mutual obligation and sacrifice only in light of military action which requires perpetual violence. From our ears, we bleed. We cannot hear the cries of children in Kabul or Uvalde, Texas. We are defended by an American soldier, who has fallen from the sky, and been replaced by a drone that circulates day and night over the bright and darkened lands of the earth.  

Just outside the park, we pull into the Crow Nation Express gas station and shop. Alice hands me a $20 and sets the GPS for Sheridan. I head inside where two teenage Native girls fold Pendleton blankets. They glance at their phones and speak the shorthand of teens, punctuated by laughter. I pass bins of toy horses and stuffed buffalo. Under a dreamcatcher, I enter the convenience shop. A Native man behind the counter teeters on a stool. He's massive. He might weigh 400. 

I grab water, a couple Gatorades, a few CLIF bars and Advil. Outside, Winnebagos and Harleys, sedans and SUVs fuel up. I ask the clerk if it's always this busy.

"Eh," he shrugs. "Summertime." 

He rings up the items and slides a green wicker basket to the center of the counter. 

"Want a cookie?" he asks. 

Two dried-out chocolate chip cookies sit on wax paper. I decline. He gives the basket a shake. I ask if they're homemade. He shrugs. I ask if they're any good. He puts his hands on his belly and wiggles. Waves of subcutaneous fat wobble and spill over the elastic band of his shorts. 

"OK," I say laughing, "deal." 

He smiles. I hand over the cash and he makes change. Forty-eight cents. Palming the quarter and both dimes, I spot a plastic dish on the counter: "Take a Penny, Leave a Penny."

And on this day, dear reader, downhill from Little Bighorn, I leave a penny. Three, actually. My two cents plus one more. The coins roll and spin before coming to a stop. Heads. Tails. Heads. 

By Jeremy Collins

Jeremy Collins is an award-winning writer whose essays have appeared in publications and anthologies such as Sports Illustrated and the Georgia Review, "Best American Sports Writing" and "The Pushcart Prize." His essay, “Basic Composition,” which focused on teaching combat veterans, won the Lamar York Award in the Chattahoochee Review and was named a notable essay in "The Best American Essays 2015." He lives in metro Atlanta with his wife, the artist Alice Stone-Collins, and their two daughters. Follow him on Twitter.

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