An investigation of the August 29 airstrike, which mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven children, did not recommend any disciplinary action.
Surveillance videos showed the presence of at least one child in the area some two minutes before the military launched a drone strike on a site in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August, the Defense Department said Wednesday.
But the general who conducted the investigation into the US airstrike, which the military has acknowledged mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven children, said the footage showing the presence of a child would have been easy to miss in real time.
The inquiry by the Air Force's inspector general, Lt. Gen. Sami Said, found no violations of law and does not recommend any disciplinary action. The general blamed a series of assumptions, made over the course of eight hours as US officials tracked a white Toyota Corolla through Kabul, for causing what he called "confirmation bias," leading to the Aug. 29 strike.
"That assessment was primarily driven by interpretation," the general said Wednesday during an unclassified briefing on the report to news media at the Pentagon. "Regrettably, the interpretational assessment was inaccurate."
While Said acknowledged that the military had video footage showing a child at the site two minutes before the launch, he said that he was unsure whether anyone who was not specifically looking for evidence of a child would have picked up on it.
"Two independent reviews that I conducted, the physical evidence of a child was apparent at the 2-minute point," he said. "But it is 100 per cent not obvious; you have to be looking for it."
The military makes an effort to avoid civilian casualties. The known presence of a child in a strike zone would most likely have prompted, at a minimum, further consideration of whether a more thorough assessment of the target was warranted.
Planners involved in the strike "had a genuine belief that there was an imminent threat to US forces," the general said. He acknowledged that was "a mistake" but added that "it's not negligence."
Said insisted that the strike has to be considered in the context of the moment, with US officials at a heightened state of alert after a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport three days earlier killed about 170 civilians and 13 US troops.
The investigation made several recommendations for fixing the process through which strikes are ordered, including putting in new measures to cut down the risk of confirmation bias and reviewing the pre-strike procedures used to assess the presence of civilians.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the review of the military's initial inquiry into the drone strike to determine, among other issues, who should be held accountable and "the degree to which strike authorities, procedures and processes need to be altered in the future."
Almost everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, days and weeks after the drone strike turned out to be false. The explosives the military claimed were loaded in the trunk of a white sedan struck by the drone's Hellfire missile were probably water bottles. And a secondary explosion in the courtyard in the densely populated Kabul neighbourhood where the attack took place was probably a propane or gas tank, officials said.
The driver of the white sedan that was struck by the US drone, Zemari Ahmadi, was employed by Nutrition and Education International, a California-based aid organization.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of Central Command, said in a news conference in September that the strike was carried out "in the profound belief" that the Islamic State group was about to launch another attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Since then, the Pentagon offered unspecified condolence payments to the family of the 10 civilians who were killed in the drone strike.
The Pentagon has also said it was working with the State Department to help surviving members of the family relocate to the United States.
Congress has authorized the Pentagon to pay up to US$3 million a year for payments to compensate for property damage, personal injury or deaths related to the actions of US armed forces, as well as for "hero payments" to the family members of local allied forces, such as Afghan or Iraqi troops fighting al-Qaida or the Islamic State group.
Condolence payments for deaths caused by the U.S. military have varied widely in recent years. In fiscal 2019, for instance, the Pentagon offered 71 such payments — ranging from US$131 to US$35,000 — in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"This investigation is deeply disappointing and inadequate because we're left with many of the same questions we started with," Steven Kwon, president of Nutrition and Education International, said in an emailed statement. "I do not understand how the most powerful military in the world could follow Zemari, an aid worker, in a commonly used car for eight hours and not figure out who he was and why he was at a US aid organisation's headquarters."
Critics of the strike pointed to the incongruity of acknowledging the mistake but not finding anyone responsible for any wrongdoing, a point that Said touched on in his remarks. He said that he had sent the full report to senior military officials.
"The fact that I've sent it to the chain of command, that doesn't mean the chain of command won't do anything," he said. "They can read this and say, 'This is subpar performance.' "
Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that Nutrition and Educational International "and the surviving family members have repeatedly asked for meaningful transparency and accountability for the wrongful killing of their loved ones, but they did not receive it today.
"The inspector general's main findings of error, confirmation bias and communication breakdowns are all too common with U.S. lethal strikes, and his recommendations do not remedy the tremendous harm here, or the likelihood that it will happen again."
The Pentagon's initial acknowledgment of the mistaken strike came a week after a New York Times investigation of video evidence challenged assertions by the military that it had struck a vehicle carrying explosives meant for the airport.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt
Photographs by: Jim Huylebroek
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