Three of the U.S. military’s top officials have told Congress that they realized within hours that a botched Aug. 29 drone strike killed innocent civilians—contradicting earlier military statements about what the government knew in the aftermath of the incident.
“We knew the strike hit civilians within four to five hours after the strike occurred, and U.S. Central Command issued a press release saying that,” Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie told members of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) on Sept. 29, in responding to questions from Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.).
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also said the Pentagon knew about civilian deaths within “several hours” of the strike, as did Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
However, the latter part of McKenzie’s statement is false. CENTCOM statements following the drone strike don’t note civilian deaths.
The first Aug. 29 CENTCOM release regarding the incident said CENTCOM was “assessing the possibilities of civilian casualties, though we have no indications at this time.”
When media reports trickled out later that day about civilian deaths, CENTCOM issued a follow-up statement also failing to acknowledge the deaths.
“We are aware of reports of civilian casualties following our strike on a vehicle in Kabul today,” the second release reads. “It is unclear what may have happened, and we are investigating further.”
The same statements from CENTCOM also note that the drone strike eliminated an “imminent ISIS-K threat” to the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, and that secondary explosions may have occurred—both of which also proved to be untrue.
McKenzie also told HASC members on Sept. 29 that the Pentagon learned “a few days later” that the strike didn’t hit its intended target. But the Pentagon didn’t admit that until Sept. 17.
For weeks, U.S. military leaders repeatedly portrayed the strike as a successful attack, even as family members of the deceased insisted there was no connection between them and the ISIS offshoot.
“At this point, we think that the procedures were correctly followed and it was a righteous strike,” Milley said on Sept. 1, painting the strike as a proper course of action to retaliate against a suicide bombing at the airport in Kabul that killed 13 U.S. service members.
But after a Sept. 10 New York Times investigation raised doubts about the veracity of the military’s claims, the Department of Defense admitted that the drone strike killed 10 civilians, including seven children—and no terrorists.
“We now assess that it is unlikely that the vehicle and those who died were associated with ISIS-K or were a direct threat to U.S. forces,” Milley said Sept. 17. “I offer my profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed. This strike was taken in the earnest belief that it would prevent an imminent threat to our forces and the evacuees at the airport.”
Secretary Austin made similar remarks on the same day.
“I offer my deepest condolences to surviving family members of those who were killed, including Mr. Ahmadi, and to the staff of Nutrition and Education International, Mr. Ahmadi’s employer,” he said, referring to Emal Ahmady, who said he translated for a U.S. company for three years starting in 2011.
“We now know that there was no connection between Mr. Ahmadi and ISIS-Khorasan, that his activities on that day were completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat we believed we faced, and that Mr. Ahmadi was just as innocent a victim as were the others tragically killed.
“We apologize, and we will endeavor to learn from this horrible mistake.”
CENTCOM didn’t respond by press time to emailed requests for comment on the contradiction between what McKenzie told Congress and what the releases stated. When reached by phone, a public affairs officer told The Epoch Times that no one was available to answer the inquiry.
CENTCOM is conducting an internal investigation of the incident.
McKenzie and the other generals declined to answer other HASC questions about the incident—such as whether they knew a U.S.-registered NGO was in the target area—citing the investigation.
“There’s a lot of questions I have that have to be in a classified environment, but I hope that you guys know that I also sit on a different committee that has different insight on this, and I think it’s important that we know who authorized this, at what level—and that we hold the right people accountable,” Kelly said.