Pentagon: Deadly Kabul Strike an Error 09/18 10:22
The Pentagon has retreated from its defense of a drone strike that killed
multiple civilians in Afghanistan last month, announcing that a review revealed
that only civilians were killed in the attack, not an Islamic State extremist
as first believed.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Pentagon has retreated from its defense of a drone
strike that killed multiple civilians in Afghanistan last month, announcing
that a review revealed that only civilians were killed in the attack, not an
Islamic State extremist as first believed.
"The strike was a tragic mistake," Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S.
Central Command, told a Pentagon news conference Friday.
McKenzie apologized for the error and said the United States is considering
making reparation payments to the family of the victims. He said the decision
to strike a white Toyota Corolla sedan, after having tracked it for about eight
hours, was made in an "earnest belief" -- based on a standard of "reasonable
certainty" -- that it posed an imminent threat to American forces at Kabul
airport. The car was believed to have been carrying explosives in its trunk, he
For days after the Aug. 29 strike, Pentagon officials asserted that it had
been conducted correctly, despite 10 civilians being killed, including seven
children. News organizations later raised doubts about that version of events,
reporting that the driver of the targeted vehicle was a longtime employee at an
American humanitarian organization and citing an absence of evidence to support
the Pentagon's assertion that the vehicle contained explosives.
The airstrike was the last of a U.S. war that ended as it had begun in 2001
-- with the Taliban in power in Kabul. The speed with which the Taliban overran
the country took the U.S. government by surprise and forced it to send several
thousand troops to the Kabul airport for a hurried evacuation of Americans,
Afghans and others. The evacuation, which began Aug. 14, unfolded under a
near-constant threat of attack by the Islamic State group's Afghanistan
McKenzie, who oversaw U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, including a
final evacuation of U.S. forces and more than 120,000 civilians from Kabul
airport, expressed his condolences to the family and friends of those killed.
"I am now convinced that as many as 10 civilians, including up to seven
children, were tragically killed in that strike," McKenzie said. "Moreover, we
now assess that it is unlikely that the vehicle and those who died were
associated with ISIS-K or were a direct threat to U.S. forces," he added,
referring to the Islamic State group's Afghanistan affiliate.
Prior to the strike, U.S. intelligence had indicated a likelihood that a
white Toyota Corolla would be used in an attack against U.S. forces, McKenzie
said. On the morning of Aug. 29, such a vehicle was detected at a compound in
Kabul that U.S. intelligence in the preceding 48 hours had determined was used
by the Islamic State group to plan and facilitate attacks. The vehicle was
tracked by U.S. drone aircraft from that compound to numerous other locations
in the city before the decision was made to attack it at a point just a couple
of miles from Kabul airport, McKenzie said.
"Clearly our intelligence was wrong on this particular white Toyota
Corolla," he said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in a written statement, apologized for what
he called "a horrible mistake."
"We now know that there was no connection" between the driver of the vehicle
and the Islamic State group, and that the driver's activities that day were
"completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat we believed
we faced," Austin said.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters two
days after the attack that it appeared to have been a "righteous" strike and
that at least one of the people killed was a "facilitator" for the Islamic
State group's Afghanistan affiliate, which had killed 169 Afghan civilians and
13 American service members in a suicide bombing on Aug. 26 at the Kabul
After McKenzie's remarks on Friday, Milley expressed regret.
"This is a horrible tragedy of war and it's heart wrenching," Milley told
reporters traveling with him in Europe. "We are committed to being fully
transparent about this incident."
"In a dynamic high-threat environment, the commanders on the ground had
appropriate authority and had reasonable certainty that the target was valid,
but after deeper post-strike analysis our conclusion is that innocent civilians
were killed," Milley added.
Accounts from the family of the victims, documents from colleagues seen by
The Associated Press, and the scene at the family home -- where Zemerai
Ahmadi's car was struck by a Hellfire missile just as he pulled into the
driveway -- all painted a picture of a family that had worked for Americans and
were trying to gain visas to the United States, fearing for their lives under
The family said that when the 37-year-old Zemerai, alone in his car, pulled
up to the house, he honked his horn. His 11-year-old son ran out and Zemerai
let the boy get in and drive the car into the driveway. The other kids ran out
to watch, and the Hellfire missile incinerated the car, killing seven children
and an adult son and nephew of Zemerai.
Amnesty International, the humanitarian aid group, called the U.S.
military's admission of a mistake a good first step.
"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. Survivors and families of the victims should be
kept informed of the progress of the investigation and be given full
Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who is chairman of the House
Intelligence Committee, said a fuller explanation must be provided.
"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 said. "I am also
concerned about the accuracy and completeness of public statements made in the
immediate aftermath of the strike, and whether those accounted for all of the
information possessed by the government at the time."