Pentagon admits Kabul drone strike killed only civilians

Officials defended the strike until media reports called it into question

Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, admitted Friday that a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan killed 10 civilians. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)
Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, admitted Friday that a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan killed 10 civilians. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)
Posted September 17, 2021 at 5:10pm

The Pentagon admitted Friday that its drone strike in Kabul on Aug. 29 was a “tragic mistake,” killing 10 civilians, including seven children, instead of ISIS-K associates planning to strike U.S. troops at Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, which includes Afghanistan, said the strike was conducted out of self-defense in response to what officials believed was an imminent threat to U.S. troops.

"It was a mistake, and I offer my sincere apology," McKenzie said. "At the time of the strike, I was confident that the strike had averted an imminent threat to our forces at the airport … Our investigation now concludes that the strike was a tragic mistake."

The strike, one of two conducted by U.S. forces in the aftermath of the Aug. 26 suicide bombing at the airport’s Abbey Gate that killed 13 American servicemembers and more than 100 Afghan civilians, was part of the military’s dogged efforts to stave off additional attacks. Multiple intelligence reports centered on the threat of a white Toyota Corolla loaded with explosives, McKenzie said.

U.S. intelligence assets tracked the target vehicle throughout the day as it visited several sites, including a compound associated with ISIS-K activity, which was being closely monitored by MQ-9 Reaper drones, he said. Ultimately, the decision was made to conduct a self-defense strike against the vehicle as it was parked about 2 miles west of the airport, he said.

The strike involved a single Hellfire missile set to detonate inside the vehicle to minimize collateral damage, McKenzie said. A large secondary explosion was initially interpreted as the result of explosives in the vehicle, but investigators now believe that may have been caused by the detonation of a nearby propane tank.

McKenzie’s admission is a significant departure from the Defense Department’s previous statements about the strike. Days after the strike, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, described it as “righteous.”

Milley, already facing questions about calls he made to China before and after the 2020 election, will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 28 and will surely be asked about that initial assessment.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III released a statement Friday also calling the strike a “horrible mistake.”

The reversal comes after The New York Times published an in-depth account of the incident, concluding that one of the people killed worked for Nutrition and Education International, an American aid organization.

Lawmakers promise oversight

Members of Congress also called for a thorough investigation into the matter, including Betty McCollum, D-Minn., chair of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. "This failure cannot be excused," she said in a statement, and urged President Joe Biden and Austin "to hold accountable the military officials responsible."

House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat, wondered Friday if the Pentagon would have come clean "even in the absence of press reports" and said he'd investigate "the accuracy and completeness of public statements" it made defending the strike.

McKenzie insisted that the Aug. 29 incident was not a “rushed strike,” but acknowledged there wasn't time to conduct “pattern of life” observation that typically precedes such counterterrorism moves.

Asked if the Aug. 29 mistake called into question the administration’s plans to use “over the horizon” capabilities to monitor and target terrorist activity in Afghanistan now that the U.S. has no troops there, McKenzie maintained that the self-defense strike on Aug. 29 was part of the tumultuous efforts to protect the airport and airlift 124,000 people out of Afghanistan. Procedures and timelines are different for counterterrorism strikes, he said.

That claim was greeted with skepticism by members of the House Armed Services Committee.

“It’s clear over-the-horizon capabilities are flawed and we have far less capacity to verify intelligence before conducting strikes,” tweeted Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a former Green Beret.

Ruben Gallego, the Arizona Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Intelligence and Special Operations panel, also raised the issue, and requested a Defense Department briefing.