MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES/Instagram The Ahmadi family
Pentagon officials on Friday admitted that an airstrike they previously called a "righteous" slaying of Islamic State fighters had actually killed up to 10 civilians — including seven children — none of whom are suspected of ISIS ties.
Relatives of the dead, who have been disputing the military's version of events for weeks, have said the victims included five kids under 5 and an employee of a U.S.-based aid organization.
All were members of the same family.
The victims' relatives have said claims the dead were really terrorists only compounded their grief.
Military officials previously told The New York Times they acted based on a circumstantial case including intelligence about an alleged ISIS safe house and suspicious movements by the vehicle they targeted, driven by Zemari Ahmadi.
A subsequent Times investigation, drawing on video and other accounts, undercut the case for the Aug. 29 airstrike.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters on Friday that he had directed a review of the operation after the reports of civilian deaths. He specifically cited the Times reporting.
The military said last month that the strike was ordered to prevent another attack in the final days of the evacuation and U.S. military withdrawal at the end of the war.
Fears of violence had increased after an Aug. 26 bombing and gun attack at the Afghanistan capital airport, for which ISIS had claimed responsibility, killed nearly 200 people.
McKenzie said Friday he was "now convinced" of the civilian death toll in the airstrike and that it was "unlikely" that anyone involved was linked to ISIS' Afghanistan branch or posed some other threat.
"I am fully responsible for this strike and its tragic outcome," he said.
In his own statement, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that "we now know that there was no connection between" Ahmadi and ISIS' Afghanistan affiliate.
MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES/Getty The Ahmadi family
"His activities on that day were completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat we believed we faced, and ... Mr. Ahmadi was just as innocent a victim as were the others tragically killed," Austin said.
While the U.S. says it takes pains to minimize civilian casualties, its drone operations — which now make up a significant portion of overseas military might — have a controversial and bloody history.
"I offer my profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed," McKenzie said Friday. "This strike was taken in the earnest belief that it would prevent an imminent threat to our forces and the evacuees at the airport. But it was a mistake, and I offer my sincere apology."
Austin said there would be a further review of how the strike was carried out: "We will scrutinize not only what we decided to do — and not do — on the 29th of August, but also how we investigated those outcomes. We owe that to the victims and their loved ones, to the American people and to ourselves."
A neighbor previously told The Washington Post the explosion occurred as some of the victims returned home in their car on the afternoon of Aug. 29, describing the harrowing scene that unfolded after the neighborhood was rocked by the explosion, which appeared to directly hit the vehicle while many family members were inside.
"The bodies were covered in blood and shrapnel, and some of the dead children were still inside the car," a neighbor said to the Post.
Days later, the remains of the family's incinerated Toyota Corolla were still in a heap on the driveway of their home in Khwaja Burgha, a few miles west of Kabul's airport, according to reporters for The Los Angeles Times.
According to news reports, among the 10 people killed in the blast were Ahmadi, an engineer for the California-based charity Nutrition and Education International, and three of his sons; 30-year-old Ahmad Naser, a U.S. military contractor who had hoped to be evacuated from Kabul; three other children; and a 25-year-old relative who was soon to be married.
"America used us to defend itself, and now they've destroyed Afghanistan," Ahmadi's daughter, Samia, said after the attack, according to The New York Times. "Whoever dropped this bomb on our family, may God punish you."