Editor’s Note: Daniel Rothenberg is professor of practice at Arizona State University and a senior fellow at New America. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
On August 29, a US drone strike killed 10 members of one family in Kabul. That same day, the Pentagon announced that the operation successfully targeted a suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS-K, who had allegedly filled a car with explosives as part of a suspected plan to attack the Hamid Karzai International Airport, where US troops raced to complete their evacuation operation a day before their deadline.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, had previously called the attack a “righteous strike,” days after two bombing attacks outside the airport killed 13 US service members and more than 160 Afghan civilians. ISIS-K, the ISIS branch that rivals the Taliban in Afghanistan, claimed responsibility.
But last week, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, which oversaw the drone attack, presented the results of an investigation into the operation that revealed that it had not targeted ISIS-K operatives but instead killed Afghan civilians, including seven children. “It was a mistake and I offer my sincere apology,” he stated.
The admission and apology were stunning, especially as the unmanned drone strike was among the last US military actions with troops still on the ground in Afghanistan, bringing a 20-year military presence in the country to a painful end.
Yet, beyond the specifics of this attack, the case provides insight into the inevitable problems of an emerging new form of warfare that has dominated US efforts in the latter years of the post-9/11 conflicts. The anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria and the last seven years of US actions in Afghanistan have relied heavily on air attacks with precision munitions managed from a distance and with minimal, on-the-ground US military presence.
Gen. McKenzie’s remarks reviewed the secretive processes through which drone operations are managed, revealing the extraordinary military capacity of the US as well as the difficulty of meeting the stated goals of only targeting combatants and avoiding civilian casualties.
Gen. McKenzie explained that following the ISIS-K deadly attack on the Kabul airport, the military received multiple intelligence reports about how the group would use a white Toyota Corolla, one of the most common cars in the Afghan capital, in an upcoming operation. As many as six MQ-9 Reaper drones were surveilling the area and noticed a car of this type near a site believed to be used by ISIS-K, according to Gen. McKenzie. For eight hours, US military and intelligence watched live feeds of the car, its driver and others as they moved from one place to another, loading things in and out of the vehicle.
In the afternoon, as the car was parked by a building in an area where ISIS-K was operating, a man “assessed at the time to be a co-conspirator” approached and the drone attacked. Gen. McKenzie explained that the strike team held off on authorizing the attack until the car was stationary to avoid civilian casualties on the street, and that the weaponeering team had adjusted the fuse of the Hellfire missile so that it would detonate inside the vehicle to further minimize civilian harm.
When the strike produced an additional explosion, this was viewed as evidence that it had correctly targeted a vehicle filled with explosives in preparation for an attack.
Gen. McKenzie’s point was that the mistaken targeting of the vehicle, while unfortunate and tragic, was justified given the pressures of protecting US forces at the airport and the significant evidence gathered and reviewed by teams of military and intelligence professionals.
Yet, how could the situation have gone so spectacularly wrong? How could this level of extraordinary technical capacity have misread each piece of evidence as proof that the car was driven by an ISIS-K operative when, in fact, it was involved in the daily operations of a US-based humanitarian organization?
There is no singular answer to these questions, but what is clear from this case, as well as evidence of similar issues from other US air strikes, is that it is often very difficult to assess a situation with limited on-the-ground verification, leading to devastating consequences.
Despite the failure of the August 29 attack, Gen. McKenzie explained that the event in no way raised concerns about the capacity of the US military to effectively conduct future strikes. He discussed other operations around the same time, including an attack that killed key ISIS-K operatives in Nangarhar.
Gen. McKenzie also pointed out that the drone strike in question was based on self-defense and, as such, was distinct from over-the-horizon attacks in which he claimed the US would be able to gather intelligence over longer periods of time to establish “patterns of life” and thereby ensure with greater certainty that those targeted were combatants and not civilians.
Nevertheless, it is not at all clear that the admission of this “tragic mistake” would have occurred if the attack had taken place outside of Kabul. This is because even in the midst of a chaotic withdrawal and the uncertainty of the incoming Taliban government, international journalists in the city investigated the attack immediately after it occurred and quickly presented an evidence-based counternarrative to the military’s claims of a successful operation.
After all, the vast majority of US airstrikes, whether by drones or other platforms, in Afghanistan and elsewhere occur in remote, often rural, areas where there is limited ability to independently assess whether or not a strike targeted combatants or killed civilians.
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So, what can the US do now? It is to the credit of the US military that it publicly acknowledged its mistake (after all, few adversaries would do the same if faced with a similar situation). Yet, this is not enough.
Gen. McKenzie suggested that the military was “exploring the possibility” of providing condolence payments to the families of those killed in the strike, an issue of special relevance given that a $3 million US Department of Defense fund designated for offset civilian harm from military operations has largely gone unspent. However, what is needed in this case is a robust effort to publicly address the profound impact of the attack by going beyond the idea of condolences through direct consultations with the victims’ families regarding their needs, alongside a commitment by the US to provide them with reparations designed – as best as is possible – to repair the harm they have suffered. This will help demonstrate the seriousness of a US commitment to civilians’ rights and it should happen as soon as possible.