General Frank McKenzie, the head of the US Central Command, acknowledged that a US drone raid in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, late in August killed 10 civilians, including children.
McKenzie said on Friday that it was “unlikely” that those killed were associated with the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), as originally claimed by the US military.
“Having thoroughly reviewed the findings of the investigation and the supporting analysis by interagency partners, I am now convinced that as many as 10 civilians, including up to seven children, were tragically killed in that strike,” McKenzie said.
The US general offered “profound condolences” to the families of the victims, stressing that the attack was taken with the “earnest belief” that it would prevent an imminent attack on the airport where American forces were evacuating people.
“It was a mistake, and I offer my sincere apology,” McKenzie said. “As a combatant commander, I am fully responsible for this strike and this tragic outcome.”
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin offered condolences for the attack’s victims on Friday and announced a “thorough review” of the investigation into the attack that will also consider the need to alter “strike authorities, procedures and processes” in the future.
“We apologize, and we will endeavour to learn from this horrible mistake,” Austin said in a statement.
Pentagon acknowledges ‘mistakes’
The strike on August 29 came days after a suicide bombing near the airport, claimed by ISKP, killed at least 175 people, including 13 US service members.
The US pulled all of its forces from Afghanistan by the end of last month as the Taliban took over the country, capturing Kabul in mid-August.
US troops, which remained in control of the airport in Kabul as the Taliban took control of the capital, conducted a massive and chaotic evacuation operation to airlift American citizens, third-country nationals and Afghan allies.
American officials warned of “credible” threats to the airport by ISKP throughout the evacuation operation.
Family members of the August 29 drone raid victims told Al Jazeera after the attack that the 10 people killed ranged in age from two to 40 years old.
“They were innocent, helpless children,” Aimal Ahmadi, whose nieces and nephews were killed in the attack, told Al Jazeera at the time.
Despite early media reports of civilian casualties, the Pentagon initially defended the attack, stressing that it killed ISKP operatives.
Mark Milley, the top US general, called the drone attack “righteous” on September 1.
“I don’t want to influence the outcome of an investigation, but at this point we think that the procedures were correctly followed and it was a righteous strike,” Milley said then.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Austin has asked for a review of the drone raid investigation to include accountability for the measures used to choose the target.
Congressman Adam Schiff, a Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, raised concerns about “accuracy and completeness of public statements” after the drone attack.
“In acknowledging that error, the Department of Defense has taken the first step towards transparency and accountability. And after such a devastating failure – one that, by the Department’s estimate, killed 10 civilians, at least 7 of them children – it cannot be the last step,” Schiff said in a statement.
“We need to know what went wrong in the hours and minutes leading up to the strike to prevent similar tragedies in the future.”
On Friday, McKenzie said the Pentagon stood by the raid early on based on the intelligence available at the time, noting that he ordered a “comprehensive review” of the footage from the attack 24 hours after it took place.
“I was confident that the strike had averted an imminent threat to our forces at the airport,” McKenzie said at a news briefing.
“Based upon that assessment, I and other leaders in the Department [of Defense] repeatedly asserted the validity of this strike. I’m here today to set the record straight and acknowledge our mistakes.”
US considering compensation for families
McKenzie described a series of activities by the vehicle targeted by the raid that gave the impression that it was linked to a possible attack on the airport, including a stop at a building associated with ISKP operatives.
The Pentagon officials initially said that secondary blasts that followed the drone attack indicated that the vehicle was carrying explosives.
On Friday, McKenzie appeared to acknowledge that the early assessment was faulty.
“Subsequent analysis could not rule out the presence of a small amount of explosive material but determined that the most likely cause was the ignition of gas from a propane tank located immediately behind the car,” he said.
McKenzie said the US is considering “ex gratia” financial compensation for the families of the victims, but he noted that it is difficult to reach out to people on the ground in Afghanistan now.
Amnesty International welcomed the acknowledgement of civil casualties by the US military on Friday but called for prosecuting those “suspected of criminal responsibility” in the attack.
“Survivors and families of the victims should be kept informed of the progress of the investigation and be given full reparation,” Brian Castner, senior crisis adviser with Amnesty’s crisis response programme, said in a statement.
“It should be noted that the US military was only forced to admit to its failure in this strike because of the current global scrutiny on Afghanistan.”