The US has admitted that a drone strike killed multiple civilians in Afghanistan last month, not an Islamic State extremist as first believed.
“The strike was a tragic mistake,” Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told a Pentagon news conference Friday.
He said the decision to strike a white Toyota Corolla sedan, after having tracked it for about eight hours, was made in an “earnest belief” — based on a standard of “reasonable certainty” — that it posed an imminent threat to American forces at Kabul airport.
The car was believed to have been carrying explosives in its trunk, he said.
For days after the strike on August 29, Pentagon officials asserted that it had been conducted correctly, despite 10 civilians being killed, including seven children.
News organisations later raised doubts about that version of events, reporting that the driver of the targeted vehicle was a longtime employee at an American humanitarian organisation.
There was also an absence of evidence to support the Pentagon’s assertion that the vehicle contained explosives.
The airstrike was the last of a US war that ended as it had begun in 2001 — with the Taliban in power in Kabul.
The speed with which the Taliban overran the country took the US government by surprise and forced it to send several thousand troops to the Kabul airport for a hurried evacuation of Americans, Afghans and others.
The evacuation, which began August 14, unfolded under a near-constant threat of attack by the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate.
McKenzie, who oversaw US military operations in Afghanistan, including a final evacuation of forces and more than 120,000 civilians from Kabul airport, expressed his condolences to the family and friends of those killed.
“I am now convinced that as many as 10 civilians, including up to seven children, were tragically killed in that strike,” McKenzie said.
“Moreover, we now assess that it is unlikely that the vehicle and those who died were associated with Isis-K or were a direct threat to U.S. forces,” he added, referring to the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate.
Prior to the strike, US intelligence had indicated a likelihood that a white Toyota Corolla would be used in an attack against US forces, McKenzie said.
On the morning of August 29, such a vehicle was detected at a compound in Kabul that US intelligence in the preceding 48 hours had determined was used by the Islamic State group to plan and facilitate attacks.
The vehicle was tracked by US drone aircraft from that compound to numerous other locations in the city before the decision was made to attack it at a point just a couple of miles from Kabul airport, McKenzie said.
“Clearly our intelligence was wrong on this particular white Toyota Corolla,” he said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in a written statement, apologised for what he called “a horrible mistake”.
“We now know that there was no connection” between the driver of the vehicle and the Islamic State group, and that the driver’s activities that day were “completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat we believed we faced,” he said.