'Tragic mistake': U.S. admits killing 10 civilians, including 7 children, in Kabul drone strike

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Calling it a "tragic mistake," the U.S. Department of Defense admitted Friday that it had killed 10 people, including seven children, in a drone strike that wrongly targeted an aid group worker in Afghanistan late last month.

“I offer my profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said at a Pentagon briefing on Friday afternoon. "It was a mistake, and I offer my sincere apology."

McKenzie added that the U.S. was exploring the possibility of payments to compensate the families of the victims.

The Aug. 29 drone strike came in response to a bombing days earlier at the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. service members as evacuations continued in the waning days of the U.S. withdrawal from the country.

Damage at the Zemari Ahmadi family house
Damage outside a house in Kabul on Sept. 11, 2021. (Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A Hellfire missile launched from the U.S. drone killed 10 people in a Kabul neighborhood, with officials saying they were targeting an ISIS-K terrorist who was planning to use a car packed with explosives in a suicide attack.

The official military statement at the time said the U.S. had “conducted a self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike today on a vehicle in Kabul, eliminating an imminent ISIS-K threat to Hamad Karzai International airport.”

“We are confident we successfully hit the target,” said Capt. Bill Urban, the U.S. Central Command spokesman. “Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material. We are assessing the possibilities of civilian casualties, though we have no indications at this time.”

Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., right, John Kirby, left
Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, on screen during a virtual briefing at the Pentagon on Aug. 30. Defense Department spokesman John Kirby is at left. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP file)

There were almost immediate reports of civilian casualties, but on Sept. 1, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the bombing as “righteous” and “still valid.”

“At the time — and I think this is still valid — we had very good intelligence that ISIS-K was preparing a specific type of vehicle at a specific type of location,” Milley said. “We monitored that through various means, and all of the engagement criteria were being met. We went through the same level of rigor that we’ve done for years, and we took a strike.”

On Sept. 10, both the Washington Post and New York Times published stories calling the official account into question, with analyses finding no evidence of explosive materials in the car, which belonged to Nutrition & Education International, a U.S. charity. The driver was Zemari Ahmadi, an electrical engineer who was a longtime employee of the aid group. Officials said they did not know Ahmadi’s identity at the time of the strike but had deemed him suspicious.

Emal Ahmadi shows a photo of a family member who was killed
A photo of a girl who was killed during a U.S. drone strike in Kabul. (Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi/AP)

"On behalf of the men and women of the Department of Defense, I offer my deepest condolences to surviving family members of those who were killed, including Mr. Ahmadi, and to the staff of Nutrition & Education International, Mr. Ahmadi’s employer," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement.

"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."

An analysis by Brown University earlier this year estimated that more than 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians were killed in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan between its start in October 2001 and April 2021. The war ended on Aug. 30, when the last remaining U.S. troops left the country.

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