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Pentagon Reverses Itself And Now Says A Deadly Kabul Drone Strike Was An Error

Updated September 17, 2021 at 5:46 PM ET

The Pentagon is calling an Aug. 29 drone strike that killed up to 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children, a "tragic mistake."

The strike was meant to target the masterminds of an earlier attack on the Kabul airport, which was blamed on ISIS-K. And for weeks, the Pentagon maintained that despite the inadvertent deaths of civilians, the mission had been successful.

But on Friday, officials said an internal review revealed that no Islamic State members had been killed in the attack, only civilians.

"The strike was a tragic mistake," Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told a Pentagon news conference.

"I am now convinced that as many as 10 civilians, including up to seven children, were tragically killed in that strike," McKenzie added. "Moreover, we now assess that it is unlikely that the vehicle and those who died were associated with ISIS-K, or a direct threat to U.S. forces."

News reports began to unravel official narratives of the strike

The retaliatory strike came amid the massive evacuation effort in Afghanistan and three days after more than a 150 people were killed by a suicide bomber outside of one of the airport gates, including 13 U.S. troops.

At the time, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said officials believed the attack in Nangahar Province had killed the target and that there were no known civilian casualties.

But questions about the official narrative of the drone strike surfaced when reports, including from The New York Times and The Washington Post, identified the driver of the targeted car as an aid worker who was transporting water containers to his family.

The strike was hailed as a success that had blocked "multiple suicide bombers" from further attacks on the airport as people desperately sought to leave the country.

U.S. Central Command officials also said the Hellfire missile was fired as ISIS-K extremists loaded explosives into the vehicle.

"Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material," U.S. Central Command officials said initial statement.

In a press conference Sept. 1, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley called it a "righteous strike" that correctly followed procedures.

Bad intelligence led to the killing of civilians

On Friday, McKenzie provided some insight into the intelligence leading to the drone strike.

As many as six U.S. Reaper drones had tracked a white Toyota Corolla for eight hours and deemed it an imminent threat, McKenzie explained.

In all, he said, U.S. forces had collected more than 60 pieces of intelligence indicating another attack was imminent.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.