A drone strike carried out during the waning hours of the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan did not kill a terrorist bent on attacking the international airport in Kabul, and instead killed as many as 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children.
The admission Friday from the commander of U.S. troops in the region followed a military investigation sparked by claims from people on the ground, as well as media reports, that the target struck August 29 by a Hellfire missile was never a threat.
“This strike was taken in the earnest belief that it would prevent an imminent threat to our forces and the evacuees at the airport,” General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon via a video link. “Our investigation now concludes the strike was a tragic mistake.”
"We now assess that it is unlikely that the vehicle or those that died were associated with ISIS-K," McKenzie added, using an acronym for the Islamic State terror group’s affiliate in Afghanistan, also known as IS-Khorasan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also apologized for the errant strike.
“On behalf of the men and women of the Department of Defense, I offer my deepest condolences to surviving family members of those who were killed,” Austin said in a statement. “We apologize, and we will endeavor to learn from this horrible mistake.”
The apology was a dramatic turnaround for the U.S. military, which had been defending the airstrike for weeks.
Just days after, the senior-most U.S. military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, defended the strike as “righteous.”
“We know from a variety of other means that at least one of those people that were killed was an ISIS facilitator,” Milley told Pentagon reporters September 1. “The procedures were correctly followed.”
Even then, accounts from the ground were telling a different story – that instead of killing an IS-Khorasan facilitator, the U.S. drone strike had actually blown up Ezmarai Ahmadi, an aid worker with the California-based Nutrition and Education International who had applied for resettlement in the U.S.
Family members said the other fatalities included Ahmadi’s daughter, as well as nephews and nieces.
The Times investigation determined that the car, a white Toyota Corolla, which U.S. officials thought was filled with explosives, was actually carrying canisters of water. And the suspicious stops Ahmadi had made as the U.S. watched him from the sky were stops to pick up colleagues and to make water deliveries.
“We didn't take the strike because we thought we were wrong. We took the strike because we thought we had a good target,” CENTCOM’s McKenzie said Friday, pointing to what he said were “over 60 very, very high-caliber reports of imminent threat to our forces in and around Kabul,” many centered on the use of a white Toyota Corolla.
“Clearly our intelligence was wrong on this particular white Toyota Corolla,” he said.
U.S. military officials said they still believe there was an IS-Khorasan plot to attack the airport with that type of car from one of the locations where Ahmadi’s Toyota was spotted. But they now believe that attack may have been disrupted by a U.S airstrike days earlier that targeted the terror group’s operatives in Nangarhar province.
McKenzie said the U.S. is now looking into making so-called ex gratia payments to the surviving family members, though he admitted delivering the reparations could be difficult without a U.S. presence on the ground.
The CENTCOM commander declined to say whether any disciplinary action would be taken against those involved in carrying out the strike, saying that the ultimate responsibility lay with him.
Human rights organizations are demanding more.
“The U.S. must now commit to a full, transparent and impartial investigation into this incident,” said Brian Castner, a senior crisis adviser with Amnesty International.
“Anyone suspected of criminal responsibility should be prosecuted in a fair trial,” Castner said in a formal statement. “Survivors and families of the victims should be kept informed of the progress of the investigation and be given full reparation.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said the drone strike in Kabul should be “a wake-up call.”
“In this strike, we see the echoes of so many other civilian lives lost and gravely harmed, whether in wars like in Afghanistan, or outside of them, like in Somalia,” Hina Shamsi of the ACLU said in a statement.
Some U.S. lawmakers are also calling for more to be done.
“The Department of Defense has taken the first step towards transparency and accountability,” said Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, in a written statement. He called the deadly drone strike “a devastating failure.”
“We need to know what went wrong in the hours and minutes leading up to the strike to prevent similar tragedies in the future,” he added.
“The Armed Services Committee will hear from administration officials in the weeks ahead on the chaotic and deadly Afghanistan withdrawal,” Senator James Inhofe, the ranking member of the committee, said in a written statement.
“The August 29 strike shows how difficult and complex counterterrorism operations can be, and unfortunately it highlights that an ‘over-the-horizon' strategy will only increase the complexity and difficulty,” he said.
There are also questions about the future of any U.S. counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan against groups like IS-Khorasan or al-Qaida, which for now would be conducted “over the horizon” – from U.S. bases hours away in the Middle East.
But McKenzie said the rules of engagement for such airstrikes would be different.
“We will have a lot more opportunity probably than we had under this extreme time pressure to take a look at the target … to soak the target with multiple platforms to have an opportunity to develop extended pattern of life,” he said. “None of these things were available to us given the urgent and pressing nature of the imminent threat to our forces.”
The U.S. commander also said that despite their repeated assurances and commitments, the Taliban had done little to help the evacuation aside from establishing an outer security perimeter around Kabul airport that “also allowed them to screen people that might otherwise have gotten to the airfield.”
As far as any other help against IS-Khorasan, “I don't know that they're doing anything at all for us right now,” McKenzie said.