WASHINGTON – No U.S. troops involved in the August drone strike that killed innocent Kabul civilians and children will face disciplinary action, U.S. defense officials said Monday.
The Pentagon said that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has approved recommendations for improvements in strike operations from the generals who lead U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command, based on the findings of an independent Pentagon review released last month. There were no recommendations for discipline made by the generals, said John Kirby, chief Pentagon spokesman.
The review, done by Air Force Lt. Gen. Sami Said and endorsed by Austin in November, found there were breakdowns in communication and in the process of identifying and confirming the target of the bombing, which killed 10 civilians, including seven children. But he concluded that the strike was a tragic mistake and not caused by misconduct or negligence.
Austin asked Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of Central Command, and Gen. Richard Clarke, head of Special Operations Command, to review Said's conclusions and come back to him with recommendations. The two commanders agreed with Said's findings, and they did not recommend any discipline. Kirby said Monday that Austin endorsed their decisions, including the lack of disciplinary actions.
“None of their recommendations dealt specifically with issues of accountability,” Kirby said. "So I do not anticipate there being issues of personal accountability to be had with respect to the August 29th airstrike.”
The Aug. 29 drone strike on a white Toyota Corolla sedan killed Zemerai Ahmadi and nine family members, including seven children. Ahmadi, 37, was a longtime employee of an American humanitarian organization.
“We know that there will be some who don’t like this particular decision, but it wasn’t an outcome that we came to without careful thought and consideration,” said Kirby. He said that if Austin “believed that accountability was warranted and needed, he would certainly support those kinds of efforts."
Steven Kwon, founder of Nutrition & Education International, the aid organization Zemari worked for, called the disciplinary decision shocking on Monday.
“How can our military wrongly take the lives of ten precious Afghan people, and hold no one accountable in any way?” he said. “When the Pentagon absolves itself of accountability, it sends a dangerous and misleading message that its actions were somehow justified.”
The intelligence about the car and its potential threat came just days after an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. troops and 169 Afghans at a Kabul airport gate. The U.S. was working to evacuate thousands of Americans, Afghans and other allies in the wake of the collapse of the country’s government.
Said concluded that U.S. forces genuinely believed that the car they were following was an imminent threat and that they needed to strike it before it got closer to the airport. He concluded that better communication between those making the strike decision and other support personnel might have raised more doubts about the bombing, but in the end may not have prevented it.
He made a number of recommendations, including that more be done to prevent what military officials call “confirmation bias” — the idea that troops making the strike decision were too quick to conclude that what they were seeing aligned with the intelligence and confirmed their conclusion to bomb what turned out to be the wrong car.
And he said the military should have personnel present with a strike team, and their job should be to actively question such conclusions. He also recommended that the military improve its procedures to ensure that children and other innocent civilians are not present before launching a time-sensitive strike.
Officials said McKenzie and Clarke largely agreed with Said's recommendations.
The U.S. is working to pay financial reparations to the relatives and surviving family members, and potentially get them out of Afghanistan, but nothing has been finalized. Asked why it was taking so long, Kirby said the U.S. wants to make sure that the family is gotten out as safely as possible, and that high level discussions about that are ongoing.