By Alex Horton, Dan Lamothe and Karoun Demirjian, The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — A U.S. drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 civilians as the Afghanistan war came to its chaotic end was not the result of criminal negligence among military personnel who conducted the operation, senior defense officials said Wednesday, and no punishment has been recommended.
The Aug. 29 attack in Kabul, initially defended by the Defense Department as a “righteous strike,” was carried out after commanders mistakenly believed they had identified an Islamic State operative driving a white sedan packed with explosives. In fact, as military leaders subsequently acknowledged, he was a longtime aid worker for a U.S.-based group hauling water cans for his family. Seven children and three adults died in the strike.
Lt. Gen. Sami Said, the Air Force inspector general tapped to lead an independent probe of how the disastrous strike unfolded, said the strike did not violate rules of international warfare. It did, however, expose what Said called confirmation bias among commanders and analysts who misread drone surveillance of the driver’s movements as threatening to U.S. troops racing to evacuate Afghan allies from Kabul’s airport.
“When you go, ‘That is a suspicious person,’ every activity they take thereafter, you start seeing it through that lens,” Said said.
Days before the botched drone strike, 13 U.S. troops and more than 170 Afghans were killed in an Islamic State suicide bombing. In the aftermath, intelligence suggested another attack on U.S. forces was possible.
“Individuals involved in this strike interviewed during this investigation truly believed at the time that they were targeting an imminent threat to U.S. forces on HKIA,” the general said, referring to Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Said said the rules of engagement used to carry out the drone strike were understandable given the “perceived very high threat to U.S. forces,” but poor communication among those involved meant the intelligence they were interpreting was not subject to the necessary skepticism.
While the report ruled out criminal violations, it left any accountability decisions to commanders, according to Said. “They could read it and go, ‘This is subpar performance’ . . . and decide to take adverse action,” he said.
U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the operation, did not address questions about what accountability actions may be taken. Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the command, said officials are reviewing the investigation’s findings and recommendations.
The Defense Department initially said no civilians appeared to be killed in the attack. Upon further review of drone video feeds, children could be seen in the area two minutes before the missile was fired, Said said.
Said’s report recommended the military change how it conducts time-sensitive strikes in urban environments. It calls specifically for a review of pre-strike procedures used to determine the risk to civilians, which in this case failed to detect the presence of children.
Numerous misreads of visual evidence and intelligence before and after the strike provided commanders with confidence they had hit the right target, Said said.
Analysts believed a white Toyota Corolla was involved in an unfolding plot to attack U.S. forces. The same make and model was driven by Zamarai Ahmadi, the aid worker whose extended family was killed in the drone strike. White Corollas are also among the most common sedans on Kabul’s roads, and U.S. troops never found the car they believed was linked to the plot, he said.
The analysts grew more confident in their assessment after observing Ahmadi handle a black laptop bag at the home of his supervisor. A similar bag was used to carry explosives in the airport attack, according to Said.
Hours after the strike, Pentagon officials said they were confident the car had hauled explosives because “significant secondary explosions” indicated the presence of a “substantial amount of explosive material” in the car. Said and others reviewed the video and felt the subsequent blasts were different from similar strikes they had witnessed, but concluded the secondary event may have been from a propane tank explosion.
In September, The Washington Post published an investigative report examining photos and video taken after the incident. The Post’s report included analysis by a physicist and explosives expert, along with former military bomb technicians, who concluded the extent of damage was limited to a Hellfire missile fired by the U.S. drone.
That analysis, along with investigations from other news outlets, came days before the Pentagon acknowledged military officials had made a deadly mistake.
Steven Kwon, the president of the aid group that Ahmadi worked for, Nutrition and Education International, blasted the findings as “deeply disappointing.”
“I do not understand how the most powerful military in the world could follow [Ahmadi], an aid worker, in a commonly used car for eight hours, and not figure out who he was, and why he was at a U.S. aid organization’s headquarters,” Kwon said in a statement.
“According to the Inspector General, there was a mistake but no one acted wrongly, and I’m left wondering, how can that be? Clearly, good military intentions are not enough when the outcome is 10 precious Afghan civilian lives lost and reputations ruined.”
On Capitol Hill, the initial reception to the Pentagon’s report was icy, as the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, said he was “unconvinced” that it “provides for real accountability.”
The Pentagon has yet to send Congress the classified version of the report, which Schiff said he would review in the hopes of it answering “serious concerns that are unaddressed by what has been put forward publicly.”