An August drone strike that killed a US-linked aid worker and nine members of his family in Afghanistan was “regrettable” and plagued by “execution errors,” but was not the result of misconduct or negligence, the Air Force’s inspector general announced Wednesday.
Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said told reporters at the Pentagon that he found no “violations of law or of the law of war” in the Aug. 29 strike, which was meant to take out members of the ISIS-K terror group, but ultimately killed 10 civilians — including 7 children.
Said stressed that the service members who carried out the strike “truly believed at the time that they were targeting an imminent threat to US forces” overseeing evacuation operations at Kabul’s international airport. Three days earlier, an ISIS-K bomber had blown himself up outside the airport’s Abbey Gate, killing 13 US service members and 169 Afghans.
However, Said added, “confirmation bias and communication breakdowns” between those making the strike decision and other support personnel led to the “inaccurate” conclusion that the white Toyota Corolla sedan targeted by the operation was carrying terrorists rather than 37-year-old aid worker Zemerai Ahmadi.
“I found, given the information they have, and the analysis that they did, I understand they reached the wrong conclusions,” Said said, later adding: “Was it reasonable to conclude what they concluded based on what they had? It was not unreasonable, it just turned out to be incorrect.”
The strike, which was initially hailed as “righteous” by Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the last combat operation of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan. Hours later, the last US forces left the war-torn country to Taliban rule.
“They all had a genuine belief based on the information, they had interpretations that was a threat to US forces,” Said emphasized. “An imminent threat to US forces. That’s a mistake. It’s a regrettable mistake. It’s an honest mistake. I understand the consequences, but it’s not criminal conduct, random conduct, [or] negligence.”
Said did note that when he reviewed video feeds from the day of the strike, he noticed evidence that a child was in the impact zone two minutes before the strike was launched. However, the service members who carried out the strike “were convinced that the compound didn’t have children in it,” he said.
The head of Nutrition and Education International, the California-based nonprofit that employed Ahmadi, said in a statement that he was deeply disappointed by the review.
“According to the Inspector General, there was a mistake but no one acted wrongly, and I’m left wondering, how can that be?” Steven Kwon said. “Clearly, good military intentions are not enough when the outcome is 10 precious Afghan civilian lives lost and reputations ruined.”
Said’s report recommends that the military have personnel present alongside a strike team whose job is to actively question conclusions about what to target. The report says using a so-called “red-team” might help avoid future errors.
The report also recommends that the military improve its procedures to ensure that children and other innocent civilians are not present before launching a time-sensitive strike.
Those changes, he said, could “go a long way to greatly mitigate the risk of this happening again.”
While Said’s report does not find individual fault or recommend discipline, he said commanders may decide to de-credential, retrain or fire personnel if they find there was “subpar performance.”
“You should not perceive the fact that I didn’t call any individual out with accountability that it does not mean that the chain of command won’t,” he said.
The US is working to pay financial reparations to Ahmadi’s family, and potentially get them out of Afghanistan, but nothing has been finalized.
With Post wires