Kabul Drone Strike Was a 'Tragic Mistake' that Killed Civilians, Children, Pentagon Says

Afghans inspect damage of Ahmadi family house after U.S. drone strike
In this Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021 photo, Afghans inspect damage of Ahmadi family house after U.S. drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi)

The Pentagon admitted Friday an airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 29 killed 10 civilians, including seven children, but not any terrorist planners as officials first claimed.

The strike was retaliation for a deadly suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. troops and Afghan civilians outside the Kabul airport days earlier during a massive military-led evacuation. Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chairman, had initially called it a "righteous" strike.

"It was a mistake, and I offer my sincere apology," said Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, who oversaw the airstrike.

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The U.S. Hellfire missile hit what the military said at the time was a suspected planner for the ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS-K, terror group driving a white Toyota car that had been tracked by a U.S. military strike cell and up to six MQ-9 Reaper drones throughout the day, McKenzie said in a briefing to reporters Friday.

The driver had parked in a compound near the Kabul airport, where the Aug. 26 suicide bombing had caused the worst day of military casualties in a decade. Operations were still underway to get Americans and Afghans out of the country at the time of the drone strike.

But the man was actually an innocent civilian, and had been publicly identified in the weeks following the strike as an employee of a California-based aid group. The Pentagon had declined since the strike to provide the names of the alleged terrorists targeted.

The strike team was "clearly wrong on this vehicle" despite intelligence received two days before specifically about that type of vehicle being used in a planned attack, according to McKenzie.

Every indication was that ISIS-K, the Afghanistan affiliate of the Islamic State group, was planning another attack around the airport, he said. But the military had pulled back all troops into the airport and was relying almost completely on drone surveillance to counter the group.

"There were over 60 clear threat vectors that we were dealing with at this period of time," he added.

McKenzie said he called for an investigation within 24 hours of the strike because the military re-examined drone footage and found images that indicated in hindsight that other people were inside the compound where the vehicle was parked.

The military's initial claims that a secondary explosion was proof that the Toyota was carrying explosives was also a mistake, he said. It was likely a propane tank inside the vehicle.

The Pentagon wants to provide reparations payments to the families of strike victims, McKenzie said. But he admitted that could be a difficult process because the Defense Department has no presence in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have taken control of Kabul and the rest of the country.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is still reviewing whether anyone will be disciplined for the mistaken strike, one of the most high-profile instances of civilian casualties during the 20-year Afghanistan war, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Friday.

"One of the things he wants the review to do is take a look at accountability and the degree to which accountability measures need to be considered and, if so, at which level," Kirby said.

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

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