About that drone strike: Mistakes were made

On September 1 Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley pronounced the August 29 drone strike in Kabul “a righteous strike.” The strike allegedly prevented a horrendous ISIS attack. The Biden administration touted the drone strike as proof of our so-called “over the horizon” capability to deal with national security threats in Afghanistan following our departure in disgrace.

On September 10 the New York Times reported that the evidence suggested “no ISIS bomb,” as the headline put it. We noted the Times story that day in “About that drone strike.” It turns out that the strike killed an Afghan friendly and others including seven children.

Yesterday afternoon Centcom Commander Kenneth McKenzie appeared remotely at a Pentagon briefing to confirm the Times reporting in every essential detail. The Defense Department has posted a transcript as well as video of the briefing.

The Pentagon investigation has concluded that the strike was not righteous. We already knew that General Milley is a self-righteous fool. General McKenzie has now proclaimed his responsibility for what is deemed “a tragic mistake.” What McKenzie’s acceptance of responsibility means in this case is not clear.

Milley himself issued a written statement. As the Times puts it: “On Friday, General Milley suggested that he spoke too soon.”

This is the upshot of McKenzie’s briefing provided by the Times:

Almost everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, and then days, and then weeks after the Aug. 29 drone strike turned out to be false. The explosives the military claimed were loaded in the trunk of a white Toyota sedan struck by the drone’s Hellfire missile were probably water bottles, and a secondary explosion in the courtyard in a densely populated Kabul neighborhood where the attack took place was probably a propane or gas tank, officials said.

In short, the car posed no threat at all, investigators concluded.

You have to take in McKenzie’s briefing to have any idea of the concatenation of errors underlying the attack. The intelligence featured a white Toyota Corolla. The white Toyota Corolla was only the first of many mistakes. The Times takes up the innocent human target of the strike and correctly refers to “one mistaken judgment after another”:

Senior Defense Department leaders conceded that the driver of the car, Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group, had nothing to do with the Islamic State, contrary to what military officials had previously asserted. Mr. Ahmadi’s only connection to the terrorist group appeared to be a fleeting and innocuous interaction with people in what the military believed was an ISIS safe house in Kabul, an initial link that led military analysts to make one mistaken judgment after another while tracking Mr. Ahmadi’s movements in the sedan for the next eight hours.

In the questions and answers following his prepared statement McKenzie acknowledged that the Pentagon investigation relied in part on the Times story. One can only wonder if the fiasco would ever have come to light or been publicly acknowledged were it not for the Times story.

This was the first question posed to McKenzie following his statement: “General, this is a complete and utter failure. Can you explain how this possibly could have happened?” McKenzie’s response sounded an unintentionally satirical note reminiscent of of Dr. Strangelove:

Well Tom, this particular strike was certainly was a terrible mistake and we certainly regret that, and I’ve been very clear that we take full responsibility for it. At the same time we were carrying out a number of complex operations designed to defend ourselves. We conducted a strike a couple of days ago at Nangarhar that was very successful. We conducted other operations across the battle stage to defend ourselves during this very difficult 48-hour period when so many imminent threats were manifested.

So while I agree with it, this strike certainly did not come up to our standards, and I profoundly regret it. I would not qualify the entire operation in those terms.

Will anyone be held responsible? “We are in the process right now of continuing that line of investigation, and I have nothing for you now because that involves personnel issues.”

Will reparations be paid to the family? “[A]s I said in my statement we are considering ex gratia or reparations for this, and that’d ultimately be a matter for policy, so we’re in consultation with the office of the Secretary of Defense to determine a way forward there. As you will also understand it’s very difficult to reach out on the ground in Afghanistan to actually reach people, but we are very interested in doing that and we’ll move on it based on our ability to do that.”

In short, like future over the horizon operations to be conducted in Afghanistan, it’s complicated.

Speaking of which, this wasn’t an over the horizon operation: “I would reject a parallel between this operation and an over-the-horizon strike against an ISIS-K target, again, because we will have an opportunity to further develop the target and time to look at pattern of life. That time was not available to us because this was imminent threat to our forces….I don’t think you should draw any conclusions about our ability to strike in Afghanistan against ISIS-K targets in the future based on this particular strike.”

On the other hand, the strike was ordered by the Over the Horizon Commander: “[I]n this case, the target engagement authority is held by the Over the Horizon Commander who’s forward in the theater. The Over the Horizon Strike Cell Commander, I should say.”

McKenzie omitted any itemization of the numerous errors on which the strike was predicated. The news stories on the briefing fail to capture the absurdities. One has to take in the briefing itself. The Pentagon video is not embeddable. The video below begins at about 4:00.

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