U.S. finally admits Afghan airstrike killed civilians  

September 18, 2021 - 18:22

TEHRAN- In yet another blow to the image of America’s intelligence gathering efforts, the U.S. military has admitted that a drone strike in Kabul last month killed as many as 10 civilians, including seven children and apologized for what it called a "tragic mistake".

Previously the Pentagon had claimed the August 29 airstrike targeted a Daesh terrorist bomber who posed an “imminent” threat to U.S.-led troops at the international airport as Washington completed the last stages of the American-led withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Even as reports of civilian casualties quickly emerged, a top U.S. general had described the attack as "righteous". The head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, said that at the time he had been confident it averted an “imminent threat” to the foreign forces at the airport.

Speaking to reporters, McKenzie finally admitted "our investigation now concludes that the strike was a tragic mistake”. He says he now believes it unlikely that those killed were members of the local Daesh affiliate, or posed any threat to U.S. troops. 

The top American general says the Pentagon was considering reparations but did not confirm any compensation.

“I am now convinced that as many as 10 civilians, including up to seven children, were tragically killed in that strike. Moreover, we now assess that it is unlikely that the vehicle and those who died were associated with [Daesh] or were a direct threat to U.S. forces”.

He also refused to confirm if anyone will be held accountable saying “we are in the process right now of continuing that line of investigation.”The killing of civilians, in a strike, carried out by a drone based outside Afghanistan, has raised questions about the future of U.S. counter-terrorism strikes in the country, where intelligence gathering has been all but choked off since last month's withdrawal.

For days after the 29 August strike by a single Hellfire missile, Pentagon officials asserted that it had been conducted correctly, even though numerous civilians had been killed, including children. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had hailed and praised the attack as a “righteous strike”.
This is while the confirmation of civilian deaths will provide further fuel to critics of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal and evacuation of Afghan allies, which has generated the biggest crisis yet for the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.

Amnesty International’s crisis response program says “the U.S. must now commit to a full, transparent, and impartial investigation into this incident. Anyone suspected of criminal responsibility should be prosecuted in a fair trial. Survivors and families of the victims should be kept informed of the progress of the investigation and be given full reparation”.

The rights group added “It should be noted that the U.S. military was only forced to admit to its failure in this strike because of the current global scrutiny on Afghanistan. Many similar strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia have happened out of the spotlight, and the U.S. continues to deny responsibility while devastated families suffer in silence.”

In a statement, the American Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin admitted the drone strike had killed Mr Ahmadi who worked for a non-profit aid organization called Nutrition and Education International.

In a statement, Austin said "we now know that there was no connection between Mr. Ahmadi and Daesh that his activities on that day were completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat we believed we faced". Austin added "we apologize, and we will endeavor to learn from this horrible mistake."

Reports had emerged almost immediately that the drone strike in a neighborhood west of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport had killed civilians including children. Video from the scene showed the wreckage of a car strewn around the courtyard of a building. A spokesman for Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers, Zabihullah Mujahid, said at the time that the attack killed at least seven people and that the Taliban was investigating.

The strike came three days after an explosive device killing scores of Afghan civilians as well as 13 U.S. troops who had crowded outside the airport gates, desperate to secure seats on evacuation flights after the U.S.-trained Afghan forces melted away and the Taliban swept to power in the capital. The attack was reportedly claimed by the Daesh terror group. 

Following the bombing attack at the airport, the U.S. military launched a drone strike in eastern Afghanistan that the Pentagon claims killed two Daesh members. That airstrike is not under any form of investigation and it is unclear who was killed in the initial strike. 

The second strike admittedly mistaken by Washington itself came as the U.S. military was on heightened alert, with officials claiming they expected more attacks on the airport, including from rockets and vehicle-borne explosive devices, as the Pentagon wrapped up its mission. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared to blame the fog of war, even as he acknowledged in a statement that the civilian deaths were "heart wrenching".

Milley says "in a dynamic high threat environment, the commanders on the ground had the appropriate authority and had reasonable certainty that the target was valid" 

The authority to carry out strikes in Afghanistan, against al-Qaeda or Daesh affiliates, will not rest anymore with U.S. commanders in the region, a U.S. defense official says, adding Austin himself will have to authorize any future strikes.

Still, the intelligence failure exposed in America's last military strike of its war in Afghanistan raises hard questions about the risks going forward. These include whether the United States can keep track of al Qaeda and Daesh threats, and act quickly on any information it gets.

So far, U.S. military intelligence in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and elsewhere has strongly damaged the image of America’s intelligence agencies with the ever-growing number of civilian fatalities. 

Despite this, McKenzie played down the impact the latest civilian casualties would have on future actions in Afghanistan saying "I don't think you should draw any conclusions about our ability to strike in Afghanistan against Daesh targets in the future based on this particular strike”.

According to the London-based monitoring group Airwars, since 2001, when the US-led “war on terror” was launched following the attacks in New York and Washington DC, U.S. airstrikes alone have likely killed at least 22,679 civilians and as many as around 50,000.

The reported figures from Airwars cites data from several sources, as the U.S. Department of Defense does not publish full counts of civilian casualties recognized by the monitoring group.

According to Airwars the statistics it obtains are from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The Nation, and the volunteer project Iraq Body Count.

Some critics’ say even this figure is an underestimate if more accurate fatality rates of Saudi airstrikes in Yemen are taken into account, as the U.S. provided the intelligence for Saudi warplanes (trained and fuelled by Washington) during the Kingdom’s airstrikes in the war on Yemen. 

Tens of thousands of Yemenis are widely believed to have been documented as killed as a result of Saudi airstrikes on its southern neighbor with intelligence provided by Washington. Many of those who have been killed as a result of the Saudi bombardment have been women and children.

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