Pentagon: Kabul drone attack inquiry could lead to disciplinary action

Strike that killed 10 civilians in Kabul has reignited debate on the use of drones

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US military personnel could face disciplinary action following a drone strike in Kabul last week that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, the Pentagon said on Monday.

Zamairi Ahmadi, an employee of an American humanitarian organisation, was among those killed, along with several other employees of international groups and their children.

We now know that there was no connection between Mr Ahmadi and ISIS-Khorasan, that his activities on that day were completely harmless
Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin

All of the victims had applied to be flown out of the country at Kabul airport, just three kilometres from where the air strike occurred.

At the time, an international evacuation effort was flying more than 70,000 thousand Afghan allies and foreign nationals out of the country.

President Joe Biden has said that he would support a full inquiry into the strike, after he was briefed on the details.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that any move to punish those held responsible would follow a review of the first assessment by the US Air Force, which will be conducted by Centcom, the general headquarters of US forces in the Middle East.

“If there is accountability to be held, the decisions about who and what would be done would be a separate consideration,” he told reporters.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed how the investigation would proceed on Friday, with possible disciplinary action.

Gen Austin had previously ordered an inquiry into the attack on August 29, which the Pentagon initially said had destroyed a car bomb driven by ISIS-Khorasan fighters, terrorists with the Afghan branch of ISIS.

The US military was scrambling to react to intelligence that IS-K was planning another attack in Kabul, aimed at the international evacuation effort.

On August 26, an ISIS car bomb ripped through crowds at the gates of Kabul airport, more than 170 Afghan civilians and at least 13 US soldiers.

“We are confident we successfully hit the target," said Capt Bill Urban of US Central Command following the drone strike.

"Secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material."

But reports that civilians had been killed emerged in the hours following the bombing. On Sunday, the Pentagon admitted what it said was a "tragic mistake."

Initial investigation

The US Air Force claimed that drone operators mistook water containers being loaded on to the back of a Toyota Corolla for drums filled with explosives.

In the Air Force account, the civilian car, which was tracked for eight hours, had been close to a house where it was believed an ISIS-K operative worked.

What the US initially called “secondary explosions” – purported evidence of a car bomb – turned out to be an exploding propane tank stored at the targeted property.

"We now know that there was no connection between Mr Ahmadi and ISIS-Khorasan, that his activities on that day were completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat we believed we faced,” Gen Austin said.

"We apologise, and we will endeavour to learn from this horrible mistake."

Mr Biden's support for the investigation could mark a departure from the Trump administration's heavy reliance on using unmanned aerial vehicles for targeting terrorists.

But Mr Biden is unlikely to depart significantly from the controversial counterterrorism tactic.

The Trump administration launched 2,243 drone strikes in the first two years of Mr Trump's time in office, compared to 1,878 for the duration of Barack Obama's presidency, when Mr Biden was vice president, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a UK-based think tank.

Updated: September 21, 2021, 7:52 AM