An Aug. 29 drone strike targeting terrorists in Afghanistan mistakenly killed innocent civilians, including children, Pentagon officials admitted Friday.
“We now assess it is unlikely that the vehicle and those who died were associated with ISIS-K,” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command said. “It was a mistake.”
He said he is “fully responsible for this strike and the tragic outcome.”
“I offer my profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed,” McKenzie said.
The strike was launched after last month’s deadly suicide bombing near Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. military members and scores of civilians and was initially said to have prevented another attack.
CENTCOM opened a formal investigation – called a 15-6 – after reports that the Hellfire drone killed as many as 10 civilians, and had not prevented a terror strike, as U.S. officials initially complained.
The 10 dead were all members of the same extended family, relatives told NBC News, and included seven children. Some were as young as two and three.
“They were 10 civilians,” one member of the family, Emal Ahmadi, told NBC News earlier this month. He said his toddler Malika was among those killed. “My daughter … she was 2 years old,” he said.
The targeted car was driven by Ahmadi’s cousin, Zemari Ahmadi, a technical engineer for a U.S. aid company.
An investigation by the New York Times found some of Ahmadi’s actions on the day of the strike may have been misinterpreted by U.S. military surveillance, which was on high alert for a terror attack after the Islamic State Khorasan extremist group – ISIS-K – claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. military personnel and more than 110 Afghans.
What the military feared were explosives being put into Ahmadi’s car were canisters of water for his family, The Times reported, citing video of Ahmadi’s actions earlier in the day.
McKenzie said officials had an “earnest belief” that there was “an imminent threat.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that, “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 said.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said after the strike that officials had “very good intelligence” on the target, and “at least one of those people that were killed was an ISIS facilitator.”
“Were there others killed? Yes, there were others killed,” he told reporters on Sept. 1, but “At this point, we think the procedures were correctly followed, and it was a righteous strike.”
President Joe Biden also initially touted the strike as a success, and proof that the U.S. could carry out “over the horizon” strikes from outside Afghanistan.
“We’ve shown that capacity just in the last week. We struck ISIS-K remotely, days after they murdered 13 of our service members and dozens of innocent Afghans,” Biden said.
Gary Grumbach contributed.