Pentagon investigators have rendered their judgment on a U.S. drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed 10 people, including an aid worker and seven children: It was a regrettable goof that violated no law.
The August strike came a few days after a suicide bombing conducted by ISIS-K, the Afghanistan branch of the terrorist group ISIS. The attack killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and 170 Afghan civilians. Military leaders initially claimed that the strike took out ISIS personnel who were preparing another bombing.
Almost immediately, reports started surfacing that those killed in the attack were not ISIS members but civilians.
An in-depth investigation by The New York Times, published in mid-September, determined that a vehicle targeted in the drone strike was being driven by Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for the California-based aid group Nutrition and Education International. A missile blew Ahmadi up as he was pulling into his home, killing him and members of his family.
"It's a regrettable mistake. It's an honest mistake. I understand the consequences, but it's not criminal conduct random conduct negligence," said Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said, the Air Force inspector general, at a press conference on Wednesday.
Said added that the personnel who conducted the strike were acting in a high-pressure environment and sincerely believed that the vehicle they were targeting posed an imminent threat to U.S. forces. Nevertheless, a mix of "execution errors, combined with confirmation bias and communication breakdowns," led to the botched strike and civilian casualties, per a Department of Defense press release.
The report itself is classified, so the public obviously doesn't have an opportunity to vet those conclusions for itself.
It's notable that the top military officials defended the strike, even after reports surfaced that it had ended up killing civilians, often justifying their actions on details that later turned out not to be true.
At one press conference, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the attack as "righteous" and said the military had "very good intelligence that ISIS-K was preparing a specific type of vehicle at a specific type of location."
Milley also said that secondary explosions after the drone strike were evidence that it had in fact hit a vehicle laden with explosives. The Times investigation found no evidence of that second explosion, and we know now that there never was one.
Even if one takes the Defense Department at its word that while mistakes were made, everyone involved in the strike acted reasonably, that's hardly exonerative.
The military insists that its drone procedures are not enough to prevent mistaken strikes that don't kill any terrorists but do leave behind a lot of dead children.
If that is the case, the U.S. military certainly can't guarantee it won't botch another strike with similarly tragic and fatal results. That really calls into question whether we should be performing these kinds of strikes at all.
Everyone acting in good, but misplaced, faith is the most charitable explanation for the Kabul drone strike. It's hardly an acceptable one.