Pentagon backs off, calls deadly Kabul strike a mistake


WASHINGTON (AP) – The Pentagon withdrew from its defense of a drone strike that killed several civilians in Afghanistan last month, announcing Friday that an examination revealed that only civilians were killed in the attack, and not an Islamic State extremist as initially believed.

“The strike was a tragic mistake,” Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of the US Central Command, told a Pentagon press conference.

McKenzie apologized for the mistake and said the United States was considering paying reparations to the families of the victims. He said the decision to hit a white Toyota Corolla sedan, after following it for about eight hours, was made in an “honest belief” – based on a standard of “reasonable certainty” – that it posed a threat. imminent for US forces at Kabul airport. The car reportedly carried explosives in its trunk, he said.

For days after the August 29 strike, Pentagon officials claimed it was carried out correctly, despite the deaths of 10 civilians, including seven children. News organizations then cast doubts on this version of events, noting that the driver of the targeted vehicle was a long-time employee of a US aid organization and citing the lack of evidence to support the Pentagon’s claim that the vehicle contained explosives.

The airstrike was the latest in a US war that ended as it began in 2001 – with the Taliban ruling in Kabul. The speed with which the Taliban invaded the country took the US government by surprise and forced it to send several thousand troops to Kabul airport for a hasty evacuation of Americans, Afghans and others. The evacuation, which began on August 14, came under an almost constant threat of attack by the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State group.

McKenzie, who oversaw US military operations in Afghanistan, including a final evacuation of US forces and more than 120,000 civilians from Kabul airport, expressed his condolences to the family and friends of those killed.

“I am now convinced that as many as 10 civilians, including up to seven children, were tragically killed in this strike,” McKenzie said. “In addition, we now believe that it is unlikely that the vehicle and the deceased were associated with ISIS-K or posed a direct threat to US forces,” he added, referring to the Afghan subsidiary of the Islamic State group.

Prior to the strike, U.S. intelligence had indicated a likelihood that a white Toyota Corolla would be used in an attack on U.S. forces, McKenzie said. On the morning of August 29, such a vehicle was detected at a compound in Kabul that US intelligence services over the previous 48 hours had determined to be used by the Islamic State group to plan and facilitate attacks. The vehicle was tracked by US drones from this complex to many other places in the city before the decision was made to attack it at a point just a few kilometers from Kabul airport, said. McKenzie.

“Obviously our information was wrong on this particular white Toyota Corolla,” he said.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, in a written statement, apologized for what he called a “horrible mistake”.

“We now know that there was no connection” between the driver of the vehicle and the Islamic State group, and that the driver’s activities that day were “completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat to which we thought we were facing, ”Austin said. .

General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters two days after the attack that it appeared to be a “fair” strike and that at least one of the people killed was a “facilitator” of the Islamic State group. Afghan affiliate, which killed 169 Afghan civilians and 13 US servicemen in an Aug. 26 suicide bombing at Kabul airport.

After McKenzie’s remarks on Friday, Milley expressed regret.

“It is a horrible war tragedy and it is heartbreaking,” Milley told reporters traveling with him to Europe. “We are committed to being completely transparent about this incident. “

“In a dynamic, high threat environment, field commanders had the appropriate authority and had reasonable certainty that the target was valid, but upon further analysis after the strike, our conclusion is that innocent civilians were killed. “, added Milley.

Accounts from the victims’ families, documents from colleagues seen by the Associated Press and the scene at the family home – where Zemerai Ahmadi’s car was hit by a Hellfire missile just as he was pulling into the driveway – all painted a picture of a family who had worked for the Americans and were trying to get visas for the United States, fearing for their lives under the Taliban.

The family said when Zemerai, 37, alone in his car, pulled up outside the house, he honked his horn. His 11 year old son ran out and Zemerai let the boy enter and drive the car into the driveway. The other children rushed to watch and the Hellfire missile cremated the car, killing seven children and Zemerai’s adult son and nephew.

Amnesty International, the aid group, called the US military’s confession of a mistake a good first step.

“The United States must now commit to a full, transparent and impartial investigation into this incident,” said Brian Castner, senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International. “Anyone suspected of criminal responsibility should be prosecuted in a fair trial. Survivors and families of victims must be kept informed of the progress of the investigation and receive full redress. “

Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said a fuller explanation needed to be provided.

“We need to know what went wrong in the hours and minutes leading up to the strike to avoid similar tragedies in the future,” he said. “I am also concerned about the accuracy and completeness of the public statements made immediately after the strike, and whether these represented all information held by the government at the time.”

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