The US military on Friday acknowledged that the drone strike it carried out in Kabul on August 29 was a “tragic mistake” and all 10 persons killed were civilians, including seven children, and not one of them had anything to do with the terrorist group Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) as had been claimed earlier.
It was a most profound reversal of the Pentagon’s earlier description of the drone strike in Kabul, which was touted as a successful operation that presaged the over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability that President Joe Biden said the US will have in Afghanistan after the pull-out.
Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff General Mark Milley had called it a “righteous” strike.
Turns out, as The New York Times summed it up, “Almost everything senior defence officials asserted in the hours, and then days, and then weeks after the August 29 drone strike turned out to be false.”
General Kenneth F McKenzie Jr, commander of the US Central Command that carried out the Kabul drone strike, acknowledged it unequivocally. “Our investigation now concludes that the strike was a tragic mistake,” he said at a news briefing. “This strike certainly did not come up to our standards, and I profoundly regret it.”
The general said the US is considering ex-gratia payments to the victims and, going forward strikes in Afghanistan “will be under a higher standard”.
Asked if the blundered drone strike cast doubts on the over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy - strikes carried out from outside Afghanistan, the American general said, “Let me be clear this was a self defence strike taken under self defence rules and engagement based on an imminent threat to attack us. That is not the way we would strike in an OTH (over the horizon) mission going into Afghanistan against ISIS-K targets, the one thing that will not be a self defence strike. It’ll be done under different – it’ll be different - done under different rules of engagement, so - and we’ll have a lot more opportunity probably than we had under this extreme time pressure to take a look at the target.”
The US military had earlier described the drone strike target in Kabul as an IS-K leader who was driving an explosives-laden car to the Hamid Karzai International Airport for a terrorist attack as the Americans and other countries were evacuating personnel and Afghan allies after the fall of Kabul.
After the August 26 terrorist strike at the airport that killed more than 170 Afghans and 13 American troops, the US was on heightened alert for more of these attacks. There were intelligence reports that were widely cited, including by President Biden, of an “imminent threat”.
The August 29 strike should be considered in the light of the Kabul airport attack, the general said going into the process that led to the tragic incident, including the intelligence warning repeatedly of an “imminent threat”. The general went on to detail the movements of the car - a Toyota Corolla - stretching over hours before the strike from video recordings that showed its many stops. The vehicle picked up bags and packages at these stops, and people. “One of the most recurring aspects of the intelligence was that ISIS-K would utilise a white Toyota Corolla as a key element in the next attack,” General Kenneth F McKenzie Jr said.