A United States drone attack that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, in the Afghan capital Kabul in August did not violate the laws of war, an internal Pentagon review has concluded.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday, US Air Force Lieutenant General Sami Said said “execution errors”, including “confirmation bias” and “communication breakdowns”, contributed to the deadly attack.
But Said, who acts as inspector general of the US Air Force, said it was not a violation of the law of war or a result of negligence.
“It was an honest mistake,” Said said. “But it’s not criminal conduct, random conduct, negligence.”
The drone strike on August 29 came amid the US’s chaotic military withdrawal from Kabul, and Said also stressed that it took place as American forces were contending with threats from the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), an affiliate of ISIS (ISIL).
It came just days after a suicide bombing near Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) claimed by ISKP killed more than 150 Afghans as well as 13 US service members.
“The intended target of the strike – the vehicle, the white Corolla – its contents were genuinely assessed at the time to be a threat to US forces” based on an “interpretation of intelligence” that turned out to be inaccurate, Said said.
The US withdrew the last of its troops from Kabul at the end of August, bringing to a close 20 years of war that began after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York City and Washington, DC.
The US military initially claimed the Kabul drone attack had killed ISIS-K fighters who were preparing to attack US troops at the airport.
But relatives of the victims said 10 members of the Ahmadi and Nejrabi families, ranging in age from two to 40 years old, had been killed. “They were innocent, helpless children,” Aimal Ahmadi, whose nieces and nephews were among those killed, told Al Jazeera after the attack.
Aimal’s brother, Zemari Ahmadi, was driving the car that was struck and also killed. Zemari worked for US-based aid agency Nutrition and Education International (NEI).
The US last month also offered to provide compensation to the families.
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union said the Pentagon review’s conclusions do not provide the families and NEI with the “meaningful transparency and accountability for the wrongful killing of their loved ones” that they have been demanding.
“Family members and NEI employees that have been impacted are at high risk as a result of the U.S. government’s actions. They must urgently be evacuated to ensure their safety,” the ACLU also said on Twitter.
To reconstruct the events of August 29, the Air Force Inspector General’s office collected all of the US military’s information about the attack, including text exchanges and communications, as well as sworn testimony of 22 military personnel directly involved, Said said.
“The disconnects were an aggregate process breakdown in which many people were involved,” Said said.
“You have to put yourself into the conditions that existed at the time and what I mean by that, the risk to the force at HKIA and the multiple threat streams that they were receiving of an imminent attack,” he said. “It was unique in the sense that, it was a self-defence strike.”
This strike killed aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and 9 members of his family, including 7 children.
NEI and surviving family members have repeatedly asked for meaningful transparency and accountability for the wrongful killing of their loved ones.
They did not receive that today. https://t.co/ld68VDa3MY
— ACLU (@ACLU) November 3, 2021
The actual report is not being made public because it contains secret information about the methods and techniques the US uses to conduct such drone strikes.
The report was delivered to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s office two days ago, said Said, adding that it is up to the military chain of command to determine whether “subpar action” by any individuals should lead “adverse consequences”.
As yet, no one in the US military has been held publicly accountable for any failures that led to the deadly attack.
In a statement later on Wednesday, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he was “unconvinced” that the summary of the Pentagon review “provides for real accountability”.
“From what the Intelligence Committee has learned of this strike and the events leading up to it, as well as statements made in its immediate wake, I have serious concerns that are unaddressed by what has been put forward publicly,” Schiff said.
“The Committee has not yet received the classified report, which should be provided immediately to Congress, and I will withhold judgment until we are able to review that document. I anticipate the Committee will have additional questions about this horrible tragedy, the intelligence which led to it, and how the protocols and procedures in high pressure, complex environments will be improved.”