A U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan last month killed 10 civilians, including children, not an Islamic State extremist as the Pentagon first claimed, the Defense Department acknowledged Friday after an internal review.
“The strike was a tragic mistake,” Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told a Pentagon news conference.
Pentagon officials later confirmed that the driver of the vehicle was Zemari Ahmadi, a 43-year-old electrical engineer who had been working with an American aid group.
Gen. McKenzie said the car driven by Ahmadi was struck “in the earnest belief” that the targeted vehicle posed an imminent threat to U.S. troops who were leading a frantic airlift out of the Kabul airport during the final hours of the American military presence in Afghanistan.
Beyond the innocent lives lost, the incident also raises serious questions about the Biden administration‘s insistence that the U.S. can conduct “over-the-horizon” drone strikes in the region despite having no ground troops stationed in or near Afghanistan. The strike that killed Ahmadi was billed by military officials as a “self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike,” and the incident was touted as an example of how the U.S. could deal with terrorist threats in Afghanistan in the post-withdrawal era.
Days before that strike, terrorists with the group ISIS-K killed 13 American troops and more than 160 Afghans in a suicide bombing at the airport.
Top U.S. officials were expecting more attacks and military personnel at the Kabul airport were on high alert. On Aug. 29, military leaders said that an armed U.S. drone targeted a car believed to be packed with explosives and being driven by an ISIS-K terrorist, destined for the Kabul airport.
But Gen. McKenzie admitted Friday that was not the case.
“I am now convinced that as many as 10 civilians, including up to seven children, were tragically killed in that strike,” he said. “Moreover, we now assess that it is unlikely that the vehicle and those who died were associated with ISIS-K, or a direct threat to U.S. forces.”
Later Friday afternoon, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he’s ordered a more thorough Pentagon review of the incident.
“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,” he said in a statement.
“We now know that there was no connection between Mr. Ahmadi and [ISIS-K], 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,” the secretary said in a statement. “We apologize, and we will endeavor to learn from this horrible mistake.”
For days after the Aug. 29 strike, Pentagon officials insisted the strike had been conducted correctly, despite numerous civilians being killed, including children. Until Friday, the Pentagon had not acknowledged that any civilians had been killed directly by the U.S. airstrike, though they had acknowledged reports that secondary explosions reported at the site may have taken additional lives.
News organizations later raised doubts about the Defense Department’s 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.
A New York Times investigation earlier this month found that Ahmadi was loading canisters of water into his vehicle on the day of the strike. Those canisters may have been mistaken for explosives.
Some watchdog groups on Friday quickly called for a more detailed investigation and said the incident highlights underlying problems with U.S. drone strikes abroad.
“The U.S. must now commit to a full, transparent and impartial investigation into this incident,” said Brian Castner, senior crisis advisor with Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Program.
“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 reparation,” he said.
Meanwhile, Friday’s admission will fuel doubts about the Biden administration‘s counterterrorism approach.
The administration‘s over-the-horizon strategy largely assumed the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan would remain in power and work as an ally of Washington, providing intelligence and other forms of logistical support on the ground.
But with the swift overthrow of that government and the resurgence of the extremist Taliban, the U.S. finds itself with no intelligence-gathering capabilities on the ground. The U.S. is now forced to rely almost solely on unmanned assets based far outside of Afghanistan, which limits time on station for each flight and further hobbles the military’s ability to track and target suspects in the country.
Nonetheless, Mr. Biden continued to laud the over-the-horizon strategy in his address marking the end of the U.S. withdrawal last month.
“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries,” he said. “We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.”
But Friday’s admission will give critics more ammunition.
In a letter to President Biden last month, powerful Senate Republicans demanded answers on how the administration would address the loss of intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan after the U.S. troop pullout.
“You have sought to assure the American public of a strong ‘over the horizon’ capability to address terrorism born in Afghanistan,” reads the letter, signed by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
“Appreciating how hard it is to maintain a successful counterterrorism capability, even when you have allies and proximity, we see this assurance as illusory,” they wrote.
• Joseph Clark contributed to this report.