Gen. McKenzie: Kabul Drone Strike That Killed 10 Civilians "A Tragic Mistake" | Video | RealClearPolitics

Gen. McKenzie: Kabul Drone Strike That Killed 10 Civilians "A Tragic Mistake"

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General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command said that a drone strike targeting a suspected suicide bomber in Kabul last month killed as many as 10 civilians, including seven children, and apologized for what he said was a "tragic mistake." The airstrike was on a vehicle thought to be an "imminent threat" to American armed forces.

"I'll finish by saying while the team conducted the strike did so in the honest belief that they were preventing an imminent attack on our forces and civilian evacuees, we now understand that to be incorrect," McKenzie concluded after an exhaustive explanation of the drone strike.

McKenzie explains in great detail the timeline of the "tragic" strike:


GEN. MCKENZIE: OK, roger. Then I'm just going -- I'm going to continue based on that then, John.

In the 48-hours prior to the strike, sensitive intelligence indicated that the compound at point number one on the map was being used by ISIS-K planners, used to facilitate future attacks. We were also receiving a significant number of reports indicating multiple avenues of attached which were being planned simultaneously. Through which ISIS-K would attempt to harm our forces including with rockets, suicide explosive vests and vehicle born improvised explosive devices.

In fact, in the 36-hours preceding the strike our leaders on the ground at the airport and in the strike cell received more than 60 different pieces of intelligence related to imminent threats with some intelligence corroborating and some conflicting. With events observed from our UAVs, which were flying above Kabul throughout the day.

One of the most recurring aspects of the intelligence was that ISIS-K would utilize a white Toyota Corolla as a key element in the next attack. Because the compound at point number one was our strongest lead for this series of imminent attacks we initiated an intense surveillance of the compound with as many as six MQ-9 Reapers on the morning of 29 August. At 8:52 A.M. local time on 29 August a white Toyota Corolla arrived at point number one, the compound we believed to be a key area of interest associated with imminent threats to the airport.

Two adult males exited the vehicle, met with an adult male in the compound and received a bag from him. The Corolla then departed the compound heading south and we followed the vehicle. At 9:05 A.M. the Toyota Corolla picked up a third adult male carrying a bag at point number two and then continued south. At 9:35 the Corolla arrived at the compound at point number 3, which we now know to include an office of nutrition and education international. And all three adult males, in the vehicle, entered the building on the compound.

At 11:19 A.M. three adult males unloaded bags and jugs from the trunk of the vehicle before departing the compound at 11:22 A.M. heading south. At approximately this time U.S. forces were notified of a sensitive intelligence collection indicating that an ISIS-K cell leader, in Kabul, was dropping off supplies.

At 12:11 P.M. the Corolla arrived at point number four and at least two adult male occupants exited the vehicle in front of an office building before returning to their vehicle and departing at 1:27 P.M. heading west and then south.

At 2:00 P.M. the Corolla returned to the compound at point number three. Subsequently multiple adult males were observed loading the truck of the vehicle -- the trunk of the vehicle with items assessed at the time to be explosives before departing at 3:47 P.M. with four adult males heading north.

At 4:11 P.M. the Corolla returned to point number two and dropped off one adult male carrying a bag then continued north. After driving near point number one, the Corolla dropped off one adult male on the road at point number five, which is roughly several hundred meters north of point number one.

At 4:39 P.M. the Corolla dropped off its last passenger on the road at point number six.

At 4:51 P.M. the Corolla arrived at point number seven and back into a compound that was approximately three kilometers from the airport which was the closest it came to the airport all day. We were very concerned that the vehicle could move quickly and be at the airport boundary in a matter of moments. By this time we had observed the vehicle for about eight hours. While in the compound, the vehicle was observed being approached by a single adult male assessed at the time to be a co-conspirator. The strike was executed at this time because the vehicle was stationary and to reduce the potential for civilian casualties. A single Hellfire missile was fused to detonate inside the vehicle to further minimize the chance for civilian casualties.

It struck the vehicle of vehicle at 4:53 PM, which produced an explosive event and follow-on flames significantly larger than a Hellfire missile would have been expected to produce. It is my assessment that leaders on the ground and the strike cell had achieved a reasonable certainty at the time of the strike to designate the vehicle as an imminent threat to U.S. forces at the airport, and that they made a self-defense strike in accordance with established rules of engagement.

That assessment is based upon interviews with leaders on the ground and members of strike cell, on a review of the intelligence available to the team at the time of the strike and on the team's interpretation of how this vehicle and its occupants' actions were confirming the intelligence that they were seeing. It is further my assessment that the strike team were convinced at the time of the strike that the area was clear of civilians and that they had taken prudent steps in regards to weaponeering the strike to minimize the potential for civilian casualties. Finally, it is my assessment that they did believe, as reported, that there was a secondary explosion.

Our investigation now concludes that the strike was a tragic mistake. First, I will stress this was not a rushed strike. The strike cell deliberately followed and observed this vehicle and its occupants for eight hours while crosschecking what they were seeing with all available intelligence to develop a reasonable certainty of the imminent threat that this vehicle posed to our forces.

Second, while the initial reports indicated the secondary explosion, the initial investigation could only conclude that there was a possible to probable presence of external accelerants that could include either explosive material in the vehicle or ignition of the gas tank of the vehicle. Subsequent analysis could not rule out the presence of a small amount of explosive material, but determined that the most likely cause was the ignition of gas from a propane tank located immediately behind the car. Such an ignition would have created the brief but massive fireball oriented directly up and out of the compound that was observed in the video and displayed in this photo. If we could get that next photo up, please.

Finally, while the strike cell reported the presence of two adult males, one inside the vehicle and one outside the vehicle at the time of the strike, the cell initiated a review of their footage immediately following the report of civilian casualties and determined that a few partially obscured forms were briefly visible moving in the compound. This led to my initiation of an investigation within 24 hours of the strike.

A comprehensive review of all the available footage and reporting on the matter led us to a final conclusion, that as many as 10 civilians were killed in the strike, including up to seven children. At the time of the strike, based upon all the intelligence and what was being reported, I was confident that the strike had averted an imminent threat to our forces at the airport. Based upon that assessment, I and other leaders in the department repeatedly asserted the validity of this strike.

I am here today to set the record straight and acknowledge our mistakes. I will end my remarks with the same note of sincere and profound condolences for the family and friends of those who died in this tragic strike. We are exploring the possibility of ex gratia payments.

And I'll finish by saying while the team conducted the strike did so in the honest belief that they were preventing an imminent attack on our forces and civilian evacuees, we now understand that to be incorrect.
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