An investigation led by U.S. Central Command has revealed the details of a deadly error committed by U.S. military officials — and alleged attempts to downplay it — days prior to Afghanistan being overtaken by the Taliban.
On August 29, 2021, a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone dropped a Hellfire bomb on a white Toyota Corolla in a neighborhood close to Kabul airport, killing 10 civilians, seven of whom were children.
An incomplete and redacted report of the incident led by U.S. Central Command and obtained by The New York Times via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit reveals that U.S. intelligence had received information about a planned attack on the Kabul airport before the drone strike. U.S. personnel were instructed to look out for a white Toyota Corolla.
A suicide bomber had killed nearly 200 people at the airport three days earlier, including 13 American service members.
On August 29, 2021, U.S. military analysts spotted a white Corolla at an alleged Islamic State safe house. The Toyota Corolla is by far the most popular car model in Afghanistan, with some estimates suggesting Corollas account for as many as 90% of cars on Afghanistan’s roads.
U.S. personnel trailed the automobile around Kabul for hours before authorizing a drone strike, noting that it was making frequent stops, was following an erratic route, and was being “gingerly loaded” with packages.
Analysts judged that the packages were explosives due to their being handled with care and that the car’s movements were mimicking a “pre-attack posture historically demonstrated by the group.”
In reality, the driver of the car was Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime aid worker and an electrical engineer for Nutrition and Education International, a California-based group with no connections to the Islamic State.
He was picking up his employer’s laptop, taking his coworkers to and from work, and loading containers of water into his trunk. No explosives were found in the vehicle, as The New York Times reported.
In the aftermath of this botched attack, Central Command investigators learned that military analysts began hearing reports and seeing video footage of civilian casualties within minutes of the drone strike.
A few hours later, a frame-by-frame analysis of the footage showed analysts that at least three children had been killed. This information was reported by an officer to two top commanders in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, the ground force commander, and Rear Adm. Peter G. Vasely.
Nonetheless, U.S. Central Command released a statement later that same day saying that it was “unclear” whether reports of civilian casualties were true and that an investigation was underway.
“We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life,” said U.S. Central Command spokesperson Capt. Bill Urban.
A few days later, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the strike “righteous.” While Milley affirmed incorrectly that an ISIS facilitator and “others” had been killed, no further details were provided.
“We’ll try to sort through all of that,” Milley told reporters of alleged civilian casualties.
Over the following weeks, reporting by The New York Times cast doubt over the military’s version of events. The Pentagon eventually declared the airstrike leading to the death of 10 civilians a “tragic mistake.”
It was later announced by the Pentagon that no military personnel would be punished for the incident.