'A Tragic Mistake.' Botched Drone Strike in Afghanistan Raises Concerns Over Biden's Counterterrorism Strategy

The U.S. military received intelligence that another attack was imminent days after ISIS-K terrorists attacked Kabul's airport and killed more than 100 Afghans. MQ-9 Reaper drones, which were operating in wide racetrack patterns, hunted for any clues that could possibly prevent another tragedy.
The drones started following a white Toyota Corolla in a working-class neighborhood of Kabul, after learning that a sedan might be used in the next attack. The U.S. military viewed the vehicle's movements around Kabul using high-resolution cameras. They also saw several men packing large bundles of explosives inside.

After hours of observation, U.S. commandos believed they had enough information to stop what they thought was a suicide bomber who planned to kill American troops as they were finishing the final stages of their withdrawal from Afghanistan. A military officer authorized a drone operator, to launch a Hellfire rocket to destroy the target. The strike struck the car and the threat was gone, or so the military believed.

Two weeks after reviewing the strike and the evidence, the Pentagon admitted on Friday that the drone attack was a terrible mistake that resulted in the deaths of 10 civilians, seven of them children. This admission by the U.S. military drew immediate criticism for the Biden Administration's hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and its counterterrorism strategy in the absence U.S. troops. The drone strike was initially cited by President Joe Biden as an example of success in his over-the-horizon strategy to counter terrorist threats from afar.

Samia Ahmadi (right), whose father, and fianc, were both killed in strike, is still grieving over their deaths on August 30. Jim HuylebroekThe New York Times/Redux

Biden has not yet responded publicly to the announcement about the drone strike. However, General Kenneth McKenzie (commander of U.S. military operation in the Middle East) held a video conference with reporters at Pentagon Friday to admit to his fatal mistake. McKenzie stated that he was confident that the strike would have prevented an imminent threat to the forces of our airport. Our investigation has concluded that the strike was a terrible mistake.

The over-the-horizon approach will allow for intelligence and targeting information on suspected terrorist activity in Afghanistan to be derived largely from drones flying overhead, captured communications chatter, and images taken by drones. This is in contrast to U.S. forces and their partners on the ground. No technology can replace the experience of having trained eyes on a target, as demonstrated by the civilian casualties in Kabul.

The military thought that ISIS-K had operatives. However, Zemari Ahmadi was a longtime worker for an U.S. aid organization. He had no connection to the terrorist group. The military thought it was a safe house for terrorists, but it turned out to be a home with small children. The military thought that explosives were water bottles.

McKenzie stated that she offered her deep condolences and sympathies to the families and friends of the victims. She also said that the U.S. was looking into the possibility of making payments to compensate survivors.

A military transport plane flew over the Ahmadi family's relatives and neighbors, who were gathered around the destroyed vehicle on Aug. 30, 2013. Marcus YamLos Angeles Times/Getty images

The U.S. military is not known to release information about civilian casualty investigations. If they do, they keep the results for several months before being released. In the days that followed the airstrike news outlets such as the Washington Post and New York Times published highly-publicized investigations that contradicted Pentagon's initial claims.

McKenzie discredited the idea that the drone strike was a bellwether for the strategy's over-the-horizon. He said that future strikes will be more secure and have greater certainty. At the time of the Kabul strike the military felt they were under imminent threat and was forced to attack. He said that it would be different if the rules of engagement were different. Under this time pressure, we would have had a lot more chance to see the target.

The U.S. military conducts intelligence soaks of targets before they launch strikes. They use drones to monitor for several days in order to establish a pattern of life, identify civilians who live there, and determine where militants are hiding. To determine who they are looking at, military often intercept communications. McKenzie stated that none of these information were possible to us due to the urgency and urgent nature of the imminent threat our forces face.

The U.S. government made mistakes even in more limited time constraints. Targeted-killing drone programs targeting terrorist operatives are primarily managed by the CIA and U.S. military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command. This program has been accused of intentionally killing civilians. Although numbers vary, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (based in London) estimates that 300-900 civilians have been killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan since January 2004.

A boy grieves over the loss of his sister in the drone attack. Jim HuylebroekThe New York Times/Redux

Separately, the Pentagon acknowledged that U.S. strikes have killed more than 1,400 civilians in Syria and Iraq since 2014, when operations against ISIS began. Airwars, another London-based non-profit that tracks civilian casualties during war zones, estimates the number to be much higher. According to Airwars, approximately 29,000 people were killed in air strikes by the United States.

Chris Woods, director at Airwars, said that the U.S. military's insistence that this was an honorable strike despite overwhelming and immediate evidence to the contrary raises fundamental questions about how military commands routinely ignore tragedies reported by affected communities. It is absurd that civilians are only held accountable when the investigative power of U.S. media giants comes to bear.

Others have claimed that the U.S. military only admitted responsibility for civilian casualties because it was well documented. Drone strikes are frequently conducted in rural areas in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Libya, and Somalia. But what about strikes that the American public doesn't see?

This tragedy is different than many others in the war in Afghanistan because the U.S. military was forced to investigate and apologize. The U.S. military is now exploring making amends, Hina Shamsi (director of the ACLUs National Security Project) stated in a statement.

She said that the United States' record on lethal strike is generally one of refusing to acknowledge families with devastating losses, weak, or inexistent investigations, and making no amends whatsoever even though there is clear evidence of wrongdoing. This strike should serve as a wake-up call and inflection point.

Friends and relatives attend the mass funeral for the family members who were killed in the strike on Aug. 30, at 11:59 a.m. Marcus YamLos Angeles Times/Getty Photos

The U.S. has had a broad view of international military operations in the 20 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks. It has seen much of the globe from Washington as a battlefield. Although the Biden Administration is currently revising U.S. policy regarding the use of lethal force to combat terrorists, the President has not yet made a decision, even after withdrawing from Afghanistan. This has been criticized by Republicans.

After 20 years of providing safe haven for al-Qaeda operatives, the U.S. has now left Afghanistan to the Taliban militants. Its leaders maintain close ties with al-Qaeda. The nascent Kabul government is unlikely to be able stop the resurgence in terrorist groups in the region.

Their over-the-horizon capability was claimed to be working by the Administration. We have yet another failure with fatal consequences, Rep. Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican who is the top Republican on House Armed Services Committee, stated in a statement. Mr. Please, President, make a plan to counterterrorism in Afghanistan before innocent lives are more lost.

There are indications of a possible policy shift. There are signs of a possible policy change.

With reporting by Vera Bergengruen/Washington

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W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com.