A drone strike carried out during the waning hours of the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan did not kill a terrorist bent on attacking the international airport in Kabul, and instead killed as many as 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children.
The admission Friday from the commander of U.S. troops in the region followed a military investigation sparked by claims from people on the ground, as well as media reports, that the target struck August 29 by a Hellfire missile was never a threat.
“This strike was taken in the earnest belief that it would prevent an imminent threat to our forces and the evacuees at the airport,” General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon via a video link. “Our investigation now concludes the strike was a tragic mistake.”
“We now assess that it is unlikely that the vehicle or those that died were associated with ISIS-K,” McKenzie added, using an acronym for the Islamic State terror group’s affiliate in Afghanistan, also known as IS-Khorasan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also apologized for the errant strike.
“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,” Austin said in a statement. “We apologize, and we will endeavor to learn from this horrible mistake.”
The apology was a dramatic turnaround for the U.S. military, which had been defending the airstrike for weeks.
Just days after, the senior-most U.S. military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, defended the strike as “righteous.”
“We know from a variety of other means that at least one of those people that were killed was an ISIS facilitator,” Milley told Pentagon reporters September 1. “The procedures were correctly followed.”
Even then, accounts from the ground were telling a different story – that instead of killing an IS-Khorasan facilitator, the U.S. drone strike had actually blown up Ezmarai Ahmadi, an aid worker with the California-based Nutrition and Education International who had applied for resettlement in the U.S.
Family members said the other fatalities included Ahmadi’s daughter, as well as nephews and nieces.