Pentagon reverses itself, says Kabul drone strike killed civilians in mistake

WASHINGTON —

The U.S. military on Friday acknowledged its last airstrike in Afghanistan before the U.S. withdrawal was a “tragic mistake” that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, in what was a tragic coda to a messy and controversial 20-year war.

Gen. General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. was the head of U.S. Central Command. He said that an Army investigation had confirmed that the drone attack last month did not kill terrorists.

” The strike was made in earnest in order to prevent an imminent threat for our forces in the evacuation of the airport,” McKenzie stated, adding that the military would consider paying reparation money to the families of the victims. It was a mistake. And I offer my sincere apology.”

Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gather around the incinerated husk of a vehicle.

Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gather around the incinerated husk of a vehicle targeted and hit by an American drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The strike took place Aug. 29, when a U.S. drone aircraft fired a Hellfire missile at a white Toyota Corolla being driven by Zemari Ahmadi, an aid worker for a California-based charity. He was returning home from the attack on Kabul’s airport two miles to his house. He was killed along with two other adults, and seven of his nephews, nieces, and children. Five victims were younger than 5.

Ahmadi, 40, had worked for 16 years for a California-based charity organization, Nutrition & Education International in Pasadena, according to surviving family members interviewed by The Times.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III issued a statement apologizing for “a horrible mistake” and declaring that there were no links between Ahmadi and an Afghan-based offshoot of Islamic State, known as ISIS in Khorasan, or ISIS-K. U.S. officials have asserted that ISIS-K was responsible for a suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members three days before the drone strike.

Ahmadi’s activities on the day of the strike were “completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat we believed we faced,” Austin said. The strike occurred amid chaotic withdrawals by the U.S. military forces and NATO military personnel. A massive airlift was required to evacuate fleeing Americans and Afghans who were in panic at Kabul’s airport. The U.S. eventually evacuated 124,000 people in the days after the Taliban entered the city and completed its takeover of the country.

The Taliban, an extremist group ousted from power by the U.S. shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, offered nominal and spotty security around the airport.

Thirteen U.S. servicemen and -women, posted on the periphery of the airport and involved in the evacuation, were killed Aug. 26 in what officials said was a suicide bombing perpetrated by ISIS-K. The bombing, which also killed nearly 200 Afghans, heightened alarm within the U.S. The U.S. military.

A day after the airport bombings, the U.S. launched an aerial strike against a suspected ISIS-K militant in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. According to the Pentagon, an alleged militant was killed. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson, said that the incident would not be reviewed.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials were warning of serious threats at the airport, with President Biden on Aug. 28 saying another terrorist attack was “highly likely.” The next day, the U.S. fired the missile that killed the 10 civilians. The Pentagon began an investigation after The Times and other news organizations reported that civilians were among those who died.

Caskets are carried toward a gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral.

Caskets are carried toward a gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family killed in a U.S. drone airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

McKenzie offered a detailed explanation of how U.S. military intelligence was tracking Ahmadi’s white Corolla as he made his rounds, taking people to and from work and transporting humanitarian supplies such as water bottles.

McKenzie said officers analyzing video feeds — along with what the general described as 60 other “high-caliber” reports across Kabul detailing suspicious behavior and actions — concluded Ahmadi’s movements constituted a likely terrorist threat.

Relatives weep as they bury Nasser Ahmadi, whose family said was killed in a U.S. drone airstrike.

Relatives weep as they bury Nasser Ahmadi, 25, whose family said was killed in a U.S. drone airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

McKenzie added that the decision to fire the missile was made by an officer in theater, though not in Afghanistan.

He stated that Ahmadi’s vehicle was not misunderstood. The general stated that the military was not focused on Ahmadi’s vehicle because they had received reports about a suspicious vehicle matching the description.

“Clearly our intelligence was wrong on this particular white Toyota Corolla,” he said.

Gen. Mark A. 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 ISIS-K.

“This is a horrible tragedy of war and it’s heart-wrenching,” Milley told reporters traveling with him in Europe, according to the Associated Press. “We are committed to being fully transparent about this incident.”

The mistake highlights the problems the U.S. will face in fighting terrorism in a country where it no longer has a presence, forcing it to rely on “over-the-horizon” counter-terrorism measures.

McKenzie acknowledged the U.S. had no personnel on the ground who might have helped ensure the strike did not endanger civilians. McKenzie stated that the military would make every effort to ensure intelligence analysis was done before any future strikes. “I don’t believe you should draw any conclusions regarding our ability to strike in Afghanistan against ISISK targets in future based upon this strike,” McKenzie stated.

Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gather around the incinerated vehicle

People examine the remains of the car destroyed by the U.S. missile strike.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said that the U.S. military deserved credit for coming clean by acknowledging a mistake with “horrific consequences” but that additional measures should be taken.

“After such a devastating failure,” Schiff said in a statement, “it cannot be the last step. To prevent other tragedies in the future Times, we need to understand what went wrong during the hours and minutes preceding the strike. The Times reporters were among those who arrived on the scene and detailed the chaos. Many children were killed because they swarmed around Ahmadi’s car as he pulled into his driveway.

The Corolla was left as a blackened, incinerated pile of metal, melted plastic, and pieces of what looked like human flesh and a tooth. A hole was found near the passenger’s side where a projectile had penetrated.

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