WASHINGTON – Ten civilians, including as many as seven children, and no terrorists were killed in Kabul by a drone strike that the Pentagon had hailed initially as "righteous," the Pentagon announced Friday.
"Our investigation now concludes the strike was a tragic mistake," Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, chief of U.S. Central Command, said Friday.
U.S. forces launched the strike after they had tracked a white Toyota Corolla for eight hours and deemed it an imminent threat, McKenzie said. There had been more than 60 pieces of intelligence at the time that indicated an attack was coming, he said. As many as six Reaper drones had followed the vehicle, he added.
The strike occurred on Aug. 29 near the airport during the final, chaotic days of the U.S. evacuation of civilians and military retreat from Afghanistan. The military claimed at the time that the strike prevented "multiple suicide bombers" from attacking Hamid Karzai International Airport. The statement from U.S. Central Command said the attack had targeted "an imminent ISIS-K threat" and that explosives were being loaded into the vehicle when the Hellfire missile struck it.
Soon after reports surfaced that several members of a family had been killed in the attack. The Pentagon, too, acknowledged the possibility of civilian casualties.
However, Army Gen. Mark Milley told reporters Sept. 1 that intelligence showed ISIS-K was preparing a vehicle for a suicide attack, criteria for launching an attack were met and that an explosion after the attack had led to the "reasonable conclusion" that explosives were in the vehicle.
Milley stated "that at least one of those people that were killed was an ISIS facilitator." Initial indications showed the proper procedures were followed, he said, and it was a "righteous strike."
The New York Times and other news media have posted stories that called into question the Pentagon's account, finding that the driver of the vehicle may have been an aid worker. The Associated Press identified the man as Zemerai Ahmadi, who was killed along with seven children and two adults after the Hellfire missile incinerated his care.
At the time, the Pentagon was on high alert, fearing a repeat of the horrific attack by an ISIS-K suicide bomber that killed dozens of people, including 13 U.S. service members, at the Abbey Gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 26. Terrorists from ISIS-K, the brutal offshoot of the Islamic State that operates in Afghanistan had been targeted just days before in a separate drone strike.
Investigators now assess the attack was a "tragic mistake," McKenzie said.
The initial report about a secondary explosion was likely caused by a propane tank near the vehicle that blew up, not explosives, he said.
In a statement, Defense Secretary apologized for the strike and noted Ahmadi had no connection to ISIS-K.
"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, including Mr. Ahmadi, and to the staff of Nutrition and Education International, Mr. Ahmadi’s employer," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement.
"We now know that there was no connection between Mr. Ahmadi and ISIS-Khorasan, that his activities on that day were completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat we believed we faced, and that Mr. Ahmadi was just as innocent a victim as were the others tragically killed."
Killing civilians by drone underlines one of the key limitations of the strategy advocated by the Biden administration after its withdrawal from Afghanistan. White House and Pentagon officials have touted "over-the-horizon" counter-terrorism options for attacking targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Drones, flown from bases in the Middle East, are one such capability. However, without U.S. troops and intelligence operatives on the ground to identify terrorists, the military has to rely more on intercepted communications and video feeds that can lead to mistaken identity.
McKenzie on Friday disputed that the mistaken strike undermined the “over-the-horizon” approach to counter-terrorism strikes. The Aug. 29 strike was launched in self-defense,he said, adding that future attacks will have the luxury of more time to confirm targets are legitimate.
The military is exploring how to provide payments to the families of those killed, McKenzie said. The investigation continues and it is too early to say if those responsible for the strike will be held accountable.