Pentagon watchdog says drone strike that killed 10 Afghan civilians, including 7 kids, didn’t violate the laws of war

An Afghan man who lost family due to US drone strikes weeps.
Ajmal Ahmadi, weeps alone in a room after members of his family were killed on Sunday, in an American drone strike that targeted and hit a vehicle in their home in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Marcus Yam/Getty Images
  • A Pentagon watchdog found a drone strike that killed 10 civilians did not violate the laws of war.
  • The August 29 strike in Kabul mistakenly targeted an aid worker.
  • The top US general initially defended the operation as a “righteous strike.”

A Pentagon watchdog has concluded there was no misconduct or negligence on the part of those involved in an August 29 drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 civilians, including seven children.

Lt. Gen. Sami Said, the inspector general of the Air Force, at a press conference on Wednesday said the strike was a consequence of “execution errors combined with confirmation bias and communication breakdowns.”

Said said he didn’t find “violations of law or the law of war” and the officials behind the strike “truly believed at the time that they were targeting an imminent threat.”

The full report on the strike, which includes several recommendations on how to avoid similar incidents in the future, is classified, Said said.

The August 29 strike occurred just days after an ISIS-K attack in Kabul killed 13 US service members and 170 Afghans, putting the US military on edge as it sought to complete evacuations amid chaotic circumstances following the Taliban takeover earlier that month.

Initially, the US military falsely claimed the strike targeted an imminent ISIS-K threat.

Central Command’s (CENTCOM) first statement on the strike said, “We are assessing the possibilities of civilian casualties, though we have no indications at this time.”

In a subsequent statement, CENTCOM added, “We are aware of reports of civilian casualties following our strike on a vehicle in Kabul today. We are still assessing the results of this strike … We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley on September 1 defended the operation, calling it a “righteous strike.”

But it wasn’t long before reporting from the New York Times and Washington Post began to undermine the military’s account. The military claimed that the strike hit a car packed with explosives by ISIS-K. Meanwhile, the Times obtained video footage that showed the aid worker who was killed, Zemari Ahmadi, filling up his car with water containers for his home.

In mid-September, the US military admitted that the strike mistakenly targeted an aid worker and killed civilians.

“This strike was taken in the earnest belief that it would prevent an imminent threat to our forces and the evacuees at the airport, but it was a mistake and I offer my sincere apology,” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of CENTCOM, told reporters at the time. The Marine Corps general said the strike “did not come up to our standards” and that “clearly the intelligence was wrong.”

In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in late September, McKenzie told lawmakers that the US military was aware within four to five hours that the strike hit civilians. But he emphasized that the military did not initially know that the “target of the strike was … an error, a mistake until some time later,” stating it took a “few days to run that down.”

Independent watchdogs and advocacy groups like Amnesty International, among others, have long criticized the US government over its drone program, particularly in relation to the guidelines behind strikes as well as the general lack of transparency surrounding operations (especially civilian casualties).

“It’s clear that the US military mistakenly killed a large number of civilians in this attack, and it was only the latest in a string of US bombings that killed civilians. This highlights that there are clearly serious problems with the US military’s procedures, the way it analyzes the intelligence it receives, and how it understands the context of where it is operating,” Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA’s director of Security With Human Rights, told Insider

Amnesty wholeheartedly agrees with Said’s recommendation that the military improve procedures to ensure civilians aren’t present prior to time-sensitive strikes, Eviatar said.

“We’ve been calling on the US military to improve its procedures for years, including after thousands of civilians were killed by US-led strikes in Syria, and after many troubling civilian killings by US drone strikes in Somalia. If this latest tragedy in Kabul leads to real change, that will be progress,” Eviatar added. “But it is disturbing that despite many years of Amnesty and others calling on the US military to improve its procedures for protecting civilians, we still see the same problems being highlighted, and no evidence that any improvements have been made.”

Adam Weinstein, research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, responded to the Pentagon watchdog’s conclusions by calling for a “moratorium” on US drone strikes “until we figure out what is going on.”

“The fact that the strike occurred despite prudent measures just affirms that the Pentagon has a systemic problem on its hands,” Weinstein said. “The very concept of these lethal human strikes is rotten and no amount of internal review will change that. It’s a fool’s errand to try to regulate what is so fundamentally flawed.”