A US drone strike in Afghanistan last month killed 10 civilians – including seven children – and not an Islamic State extremist as first claimed, the Pentagon has admitted.
In a briefing on Friday, the commander of US Central Command, Gen Kenneth McKenzie, said he now believes it was unlikely that those who died were Islamic State militants or posed a direct threat to US forces at Kabul’s airport.
“I am now convinced that as many as 10 civilians, including up to seven children, were tragically killed in that strike,” McKenzie, wearing military uniform, told reporters. “Moreover, we now assess that it is unlikely that the vehicle and those who died were associated with [Islamic State Khorasan] or were a direct threat to US forces.
“I offer my profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed. 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.”
McKenzie said it was “not a rushed strike” and efforts had been made to minimise civilian casualties but acknowledged that “a terrible mistake” had been made.
Asked if anyone would be held responsible, he said: “We are in the process right now of continuing that line of investigation.”
For days after the 29 August strike by a single Hellfire missile, Pentagon officials asserted that it had been conducted correctly, even though numerous civilians had been killed, including children. Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, had hailed it as a “righteous strike”.
But news organisations later raised doubts about that version of events, reporting that the driver of the targeted vehicle was a longtime employee at an American humanitarian organisation and citing an absence of evidence to support the Pentagon’s assertion that the vehicle contained explosives.
McKenzie ordered an investigation by Central Command. It found that the strike killed Zemari Ahmadi, a worker for Nutrition and Education International, a nongovernment organisation that distributes food to Afghan civilians, along with nine members of his family. His car was reportedly carrying water bottles rather than explosives.
The New York Times said 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 safehouse in Kabul, an initial link that led military analysts to make one mistaken judgment after another while tracking Mr Ahmadi’s movements in a sedan for the next eight hours”.
The US military was on edge at the time of the incident, fearing a repeat of the attack by a suicide bomber that killed dozens of people, including 13 US service members, outside Hamid Karzai international airport ahead of the forces’ controversial withdrawal.
Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, was briefed on the findings of the investigation on Friday morning and directed a further review. He said in a statement: “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 admitted: “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.
“We apologize, and we will endeavor to learn from this horrible mistake.”
Human rights organisations welcomed the investigation as a move towards accountability but demanded further action.
Brian Castner, senior crisis adviser with Amnesty International’s crisis response programme, said: “The US must now commit to a full, transparent, and impartial investigation into this incident. 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.
“It should be noted that the US military was only forced to admit to its failure in this strike because of the current global scrutiny on Afghanistan. Many similar strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia have happened out of the spotlight, and the US continues to deny responsibility while devastated families suffer in silence.”