US military admits drone strike intended to kill ISIS-K fighters in Kabul actually killed civilians, including 7 children

People carry a casket at a funeral in Afghanistan.
Caskets for the dead are carried towards the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family that is said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES
  • The August 29 airstrike was said to have targeted an “imminent threat” from ISIS-K, a terrorist group.
  • “We are confident we successfully hit the target,” US Central Command said at the time.
  • But soon after the strike, evidence began to emerge that the strike killed civilians, something the military now acknowledges.
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An investigation by the US military has determined that an airstrike last month in Kabul believed to have eliminated a terrorist threat actually killed civilians, a top US general said Friday.

“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 US Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon.

“I am now convinced that as many as 10 civilians, including up to 7 children, were tragically killed in that strike,” he said.

McKenzie explained that there was “reasonable certainty at the time of the strike to designate the vehicle as an ‘imminent threat.'” He said that the “investigation now concludes that this was a tragic mistake.”

The Marine Corps general acknowledged that the strike “did not come up to our standards” and that “clearly the intelligence was wrong.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who previously referred to the drone attack as a “righteous strike,” said in statement on Friday the strike was a “horrible tragedy of war.”

“It’s heart wrenching and we are committed to being fully transparent about this incident,” Milley added.

The August 29 airstrike in the capital of Afghanistan came days after a suicide bombing at the international airport killed more than 160 civilians and 13 US soldiers. That attack was attributed to ISIS-K, an extremist group.

In a statement at the time, CENTCOM said it had carried out an attack with an unmanned drone against a vehicle in Kabul, “eliminating an imminent ISIS-K threat to Hamad Karzai International airport.”

“We are confident we successfully hit the target,” a spokesperson said, claiming the military had received “no indications” that there had been civilian casualties.

But in a subsequent statement also released on the day of the strike, CENTCOM said it was “aware of reports of civilian casualties,” adding that it would be “deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life.”

Last week, the New York Times released a report that undermined the US military’s initial claims that the strike hit a vehicle packed with explosives. The Times obtained video footage that showed the aid worker who was killed, Zemari Ahmadi, filling his car with water containers for his home.

The August 29 drone strike has garnered considerable public attention since the US pulled the last of its troops out of Afghanistan. Citing the Times’ report during a Senate Foreign Relations hearing earlier this week, GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky grilled Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the strike.

In a Friday statement on the strike, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin apologized to the family members of the victims.

Lloyd offered his “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.”

“We now know that there was no connection between Mr. Ahmadi and ISIS-Khorasan, 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,” Lloyd added.

The defense secretary said the Pentagon will work to learn “from this horrible mistake,” adding that he’d ordered a review of the CENTCOM investigation into the strike. “We owe that to the victims and their loved ones, to the American people and to ourselves,” Austin said.

“No military works harder than ours to avoid civilian casualties. When we have reason to believe we have taken innocent life, we investigate it and, if true, we admit it,” Austin said. “But we also must work just as hard to prevent recurrence – no matter the circumstances, the intelligence stream or the operational pressures under which we labor.”