A top U.S. general officially admitted on Friday that the August 29 strike initially called “successful” and thought to have neutralized an ISIS-K terrorist actually killed 10 innocent civilians, 7 of which were children.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Gen. Frank McKenzie said the U.S. believed men inside a vehicle making suspicious movements observed throughout a day’s worth of surveillance on August 29 were planning an attack on the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA). When the suspicious target stopped at a location 3-4 kilometers west of the airport, the U.S. launched a hellfire missile, neutralizing the target.
On Friday, McKenzie said, “our assessment now concludes this strike was a tragic mistake,” adding, “I’m here to set the record straight and acknowledge our mistake.”
McKenzie confirmed that 10 civilians were killed, 7 of which were children. The U.S. is considering reparations for the families of the victims, a task McKenzie called “difficult to do without a presence on the ground.”
Among those killed was Zemerai Ahmadi, an Afghan man employed 15 years by Nutrition & Education International, a US-based humanitarian aid organization. Some of the children killed in the strike are Ahmadi’s own nieces and nephews, his brothers told Associated Press.
Top U.S. military officials initially thought the strike successfully killed an ISIS-K target because the vehicle matched the description of a white Toyota Carolla that was associated with more than 60 “very high caliber reports” of an imminent threat to U.S. troops at the airport. Additionally, the vehicle visited locations thought to be connected to ISIS-K, and was observed visiting multiple locations between which supplies were unloaded and loaded by multiple men.
When the vehicle stopped at its final location near the airport, military officials determined after eight hours of surveillance that it was an imminent threat and could reach the airport at any moment. Via target engagement authority held by the over-the-horizon strike cell commander, the strike cell carried out a self-defense strike “in accordance with rules of engagement with a single hellfire missile specially fused to detonate inside the vehicle, reducing innocent casualties, McKenzie said.
After the strike, an explosion of greater intensity than expected was observed, leading the strike cell to believe the strike detonated explosive materials intended to be used against U.S. forces. Intelligence later showed that the explosion actually included a secondary explosion when a nearby propane tank exploded.
After 13 U.S. service members were killed in an ISIS-K suicide attack at HKIA on Aug. 26, President Joe Biden announced later that day that he ordered military commanders “to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership, and facilities. We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose, and the moment of our choosing.”
A day later, an ISIS-K planner was killed in a first retaliatory airstrike, and the U.S. military continued to monitor additional threats, though McKenzie said the first airstrike reduced the ability of ISIS to conduct another attack.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin released a statement provided to American Military News saying “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,” Austin added.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley released a statement saying, “In a dynamic high threat environment, the commanders on the ground had appropriate authority and had reasonable certainty that the target was valid but after deeper post strike analysis our conclusion is that innocent civilians were killed.”
Further reviews of the investigation are underway and they intend to take “accountability measures.”