Top general says military was aware within hours that Kabul drone strike killed civilians – Business Insider
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Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), on Wednesday told the House Armed Services Committee that the US military was aware within four to five hours that an August 29 drone strike in Kabul “hit civilians.”
But the Pentagon didn’t fully acknowledge that civilians were killed until weeks after the strike.
The strike, which the US military at first falsely claimed targeted an imminent ISIS-K threat, killed 10 Afghan civilians — including an aid worker and seven children.
But McKenzie on Wednesday underscored that the military did not initially know that the “target of the strike was … an error, a mistake until some time later,” stating it took a “few days to run that down.”
McKenzie added that CENTCOM released a press statement “saying that,” but this is not quite accurate.
CENTCOM’s initial statement on the strike said, “We are assessing the possibilities of civilian casualties, though we have no indications at this time.”
In a subsequent statement, CENTCOM added, “We are aware of reports of civilian casualties following our strike on a vehicle in Kabul today. We are still assessing the results of this strike … We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during Wednesday’s House hearing also confirmed that the military knew civilians were killed “several hours” after the strike.
Within days of the drone attack, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referred to it as a “righteous strike.” Milley during Wednesday’s hearing defended these comments, stating that at the time he had “every reason to believe” the US had followed the appropriate procedures. The general on September 1 also acknowledged that “others were killed” as a result of the strike, but said the military was still working out who they were.
CENTCOM acknowledged “reports of civilian casualties” in the immediate aftermath of the strike, but only on September 17 did it offer a complete admission that innocent people were killed.
“This strike was taken in the earnest belief that it would prevent an imminent threat to our forces and the evacuees at the airport, but it was a mistake and I offer my sincere apology,” McKenzie said at the time.
The military’s admission that it mistakenly targeted an aid worker filling his white Toyota with water containers — not an ISIS-K operative packing a car with explosives as the Pentagon initially asserted — came after reporting from The New York Times and Washington Post undermined the Pentagon’s early narrative on the strike. The Pentagon doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to transparency on drone strikes, and has frequently faced criticism from human rights groups for not being more forthcoming in this regard.
“In the past, the US has often refused to admit that the victims were civilians, even when confronted with detailed evidence from groups like Amnesty International and others demonstrating the victims’ civilian status,” Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA’s director of Security With Human Rights, recently told Insider.
President Joe Biden has indicated that the US will continue to conduct military operations in Afghanistan using what the administration refers to as “over-the-horizon” capabilities. This means the US will deploy assets from outside the country, such as drones or special forces, in operations against terror groups like ISIS-K.
Human rights groups and experts are concerned that innocent Afghans will continue to be killed by US strikes without a strong intelligence network on the ground, which the US now lacks post-withdrawal.
“I’m definitely concerned that the Biden administration’s ‘over-the-horizon’ approach will result in more civilian casualties, because the accuracy of drone strikes depends heavily on the quality of intelligence, and if the US does not have an actual presence in Afghanistan, it’s hard to see how it can determine whether the information it’s getting from any supposed partners on the ground is reliable,” Eviatar said.