Pentagon acknowledges Aug. 29 drone strike in Afghanistan was a tragic mistake that killed 10 civilians

A week after a New York Times visual investigation, the U.S. military admitted to a “tragic mistake” in a drone strike in Kabul last month that killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children.

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon acknowledged on Friday that a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan on Aug. 29 that officials said was necessary to prevent an attack on American troops was a tragic mistake that killed 10 civilians, including seven children.

The explosives the military claimed were loaded in the trunk of a white Toyota sedan struck by the drone’s Hellfire missile were most likely water bottles, and a secondary explosion in the courtyard in a densely populated Kabul neighborhood where the attack took place was probably a propane or gas tank, officials said. In short, the car posed no threat at all, investigators concluded.

Senior Defense Department leaders acknowledged that the driver of the car, Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group, had nothing to do with the Islamic State, as military officials had previously asserted. Mr. Ahmadi’s only connection to the terrorist group appeared to be a fleeting and innocuous interaction with people in what the military believed was an ISIS safe house in Kabul, an initial link that led military analysts to make one mistaken judgment after another while tracking Mr. Ahmadi’s movements in the sedan for the next eight hours.

“I offer my profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference on Friday. He said the United States was “exploring the possibility of ex gratia payments” to compensate the families of the victims.

The general said the strike was carried out “in the profound belief” that ISIS was about to attack Kabul’s airport, as the organization had done three days earlier, killing more than 140 people, including 13 American service members.

The general acknowledged that a New York Times investigation of video evidence helped investigators determine that they had struck a wrong target. “As we in fact worked on our investigation, we used all available information,” General McKenzie told reporters. “Certainly that included some of the stuff The New York Times did.”

The findings of the inquiry by the military’s Central Command mirrored the Time investigation, which also included interviews with more than a dozen of the driver’s co-workers and family members in Kabul. The Times inquiry raised doubts about the U.S. version of events, including whether explosives were present in the vehicle, whether the driver had a connection to ISIS, and whether there was a second explosion after the missile struck the car.

Military officials cited the investigation by The Times and other media organizations as providing valuable visual and other evidence that forced the military to reassess the judgments that led it to believe, falsely, that the sedan posed a threat.

As recently as Monday, the Pentagon was still asserting that the last U.S. drone strike in the 20-year American war in Afghanistan was necessary to prevent an attack on American troops.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said that the missile was launched because the military had intelligence suggesting a credible, imminent threat to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, where U.S. and allied troops were frantically trying to evacuate people. General Milley later called the strike “righteous.”

Seven children including this boy’s sister were killed in the drone attack. – Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

On Friday, General Milley sent a tacit acknowledgment that he spoke too soon.

“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,” General Milley said in a statement. “This is a horrible tragedy of war and it’s heart-wrenching and we are committed to being fully transparent about this incident.”

General McKenzie said the conditions on the ground before the strike contributed to the errant strike. “We did not have the luxury to develop pattern of life,” he said.

The Pentagon will work with the families and other government officials on reparations, General McKenzie said. But without any American troops on the ground in Afghanistan, he acknowledged the task may be difficult. Still, he said, “we recognize the obligation.”

Military officials said they did not know the identity of the car’s driver when the drone fired, but they had deemed him suspicious because of his activities that day: He had possibly visited an Islamic State safe house, they said, and at one point he loaded the vehicle with what they thought could be explosives.

Military officials defended their assessment that the safe house was a hub of ISIS planning, based on a combination of intercepted communications, information from informants and aerial imagery.

But after reviewing additional aerial video and photographs, military investigators concluded that their initial judgment about the driver was wrong, an error that colored their views of every subsequent stop he made that day while driving around Kabul.

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