Military Analysis Raises Questions About Deadly Drone Strike in Kabul

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A preliminary investigation said that it was “possible to probable” that explosives were successful the car and that drone operators took lone a cursory scan of the courtyard earlier launching an attack.

Neighbors and relatives stood adjacent   the harm  past  week aft  a U.S. drone onslaught   successful  Kabul, Afghanistan.
Credit...Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Eric Schmitt

Sept. 5, 2021, 3:16 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military’s apical serviceman asserted past week that a drone onslaught connected a sedan adjacent the airdrome successful Kabul, Afghanistan, was a “righteous strike” that foiled a crippled by the Islamic State successful the waning hours of the immense evacuation effort.

The officer, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the president of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that secondary explosions aft the drone strike past Sunday supported the military’s decision that the car contained explosives — either termination vests oregon a ample bomb. General Milley said that subject planners took due precautions beforehand to bounds risks to civilians nearby.

But the military’s preliminary investigation of the onslaught and the circumstances surrounding it connection overmuch little conclusive grounds to enactment those claims, subject officials acknowledge. It besides raises questions astir an onslaught that friends and household members of the car’s operator accidental killed 10 people, 7 of them children.

So far, determination is nary ironclad impervious that explosives were successful the car. The preliminary investigation says it was “possible to probable” that was so, according to officials who person been briefed connected the assessment. Drone operators and analysts scanned the cramped courtyard wherever the sedan was parked for conscionable a fewer seconds. Seeing nary civilians, officials said, a commandant ordered the strike, lone for a grainy live-video provender to amusement different figures approaching the conveyance seconds aboriginal arsenic the Hellfire rocket raced person to its target.

But subject officials accidental that the archetypal investigation besides supports a precise beardown circumstantial lawsuit of an imminent and superior menace to the airport, a lawsuit that American planners built implicit 8 hours past Sunday, monitoring the movements of the sedan and eavesdropping connected the communications of the suspected plotters.

With each passing hour, American analysts watched with dread arsenic successive pieces of a crippled to behaviour a analyzable onslaught appeared to beryllium “lining up,” arsenic 1 elder subject authoritative briefed connected the probe said. Chatter that the airdrome would again beryllium a people was intensifying, with President Biden publically warning that different onslaught was “highly likely.”

The commandant overseeing the drone onslaught faced a hard decision: Take the changeable portion the sedan was parked successful a comparatively isolated courtyard, oregon hold until the sedan drove adjacent person to the airdrome — and denser crowds — expanding the hazard to civilians.

According to 4 United States officials briefed connected the preliminary subject investigation oregon parts of it, this is however the onslaught unfolded.

At astir 9 a.m. past Sunday, a achromatic sedan, astir apt a Toyota Corolla, pulled retired of a compound astir 5 kilometers northwest of Hamid Karzai International Airport. Based connected accusation from informants, physics eavesdropping and imagery from U.S. surveillance aircraft, quality analysts believed the compound was a harmless location for planners and facilitators for Islamic State Khorasan, oregon ISIS-K, the violent group’s affiliate successful Afghanistan.

It was conscionable 3 days aft a suicide bomber for the affiliate had detonated an unusually ample 25-pound explosive vest astatine the Abbey Gate entranceway to the airport, spraying deadly shrapnel successful a 70-foot radius and killing 13 U.S. troops and much than 170 Afghan civilians.

American quality analysts had intercepted messages from ISIS-K plotters that different large onslaught against the airdrome was successful the works. An onslaught was imminent that Sunday, 2 days earlier the United States was acceptable to end its evacuation effort.

Thus, immoderate conveyance coming oregon going from the compound that greeting piqued the analysts’ interest. But operators paid peculiar attraction to the achromatic sedan connected the black-and-white provender from an MQ-9 Reaper drone soaring implicit Kabul.

Communications intercepted from the harmless location indicated that the plotters determination were directing the car connected immoderate benignant of circuitous ngo successful the Afghan capital. The operator was instructed to conscionable a motorcyclist. Moments later, the car did conscionable that.

This signifier continued for respective hours, arsenic the sedan made antithetic stops successful Kabul, sometimes picking up and dropping disconnected passengers.

Just earlier 4 p.m., the sedan pulled into a compound chartless to the Americans, astir 8 to 12 kilometers southwest of the airport. A fewer minutes later, the operator and 3 different men loaded respective wrapped packages into the trunk of the car. To the analysts watching the video feed, the men appeared to beryllium straining to assistance and gingerly transportation dense packages — arsenic 1 would with explosives.

The operator and the men got into the sedan and drove away, heading northbound arsenic the operator dropped the men disconnected on the way. By astir 4:45 p.m., the driver, present alone, pulled into a tiny courtyard astir 2.5 kilometers westbound of the airport, conscionable southbound of the archetypal harmless house. Another antheral came retired to greet him.

At this point, the tactical commandant controlling the equipped Reaper drones had to marque a speedy decision. His authorization to onslaught had been delegated by Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the caput of the military’s Central Command successful Tampa, Fla. Military officials declined to place the commander’s identity, fertile oregon organization, but said helium is an experienced relation who has carried retired aggregate drone strikes successful aggregate theaters wherever the subject has fought.

The rules of engagement allowed the subject to behaviour a onslaught if the operators and quality analysts had “reasonable certainty” that they had a morganatic ISIS-K people and they assessed determination was a “reasonable certainty” that nary women, children oregon different noncombatant civilians would beryllium killed oregon injured.

The operators rapidly scanned the adjacent confines of the courtyard and saw lone the 1 different antheral talking to the driver. The commandant concluded this was the champion clip and spot to instrumentality the shot. If the Americans waited and the conveyance wove done engaged metropolis postulation oregon approached the airport, the hazard to civilians would beryllium overmuch greater — either from a drone onslaught oregon the detonation of termination vests oregon a immense car bomb.

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The Americans took the shot. The Hellfire struck its people successful little than a minute. As the rocket closed in, the drone operators could spot connected the video provender that different figures were approaching the sedan.

The Hellfire, with a warhead containing 20 pounds of explosives, ripped into the car, creating the archetypal detonation astatine 4:50 p.m. A fewer seconds later, an adjacent larger fireball bloomed. Officials accidental a preliminary appraisal by weaponry experts concluded that it was “possible to probable” that explosives successful the sedan had caused the 2nd explosion, not a state vessel oregon thing else.

The subject investigation acknowledged that astatine slightest 3 civilians were killed. General Milley told reporters that astatine slightest 1 different idiosyncratic killed was “an ISIS facilitator.”

But different Pentagon officials besides accidental they person small accusation connected the driver, identified by colleagues and household members arsenic Zemari Ahmadi. His neighbors, colleagues and relatives said helium was a method technologist with Nutrition and Education International, a foundation based successful Pasadena, Calif., and had nary ties to ISIS-K.

Military officials concluded Mr. Ahmadi was an ISIS-K facilitator mostly due to the fact that of his actions arsenic the operator from the infinitesimal the achromatic sedan pulled retired of the harmless location until the onslaught killed him.

Immediately aft the attack, immoderate chatter from ISIS-K went silent. To support their operational security, members of the radical spell acheronian aft a drone onslaught similar the 1 past Sunday, knowing that American officials volition beryllium listening. That soundlessness continued done Friday, a elder U.S. subject authoritative said.

John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s main spokesman, said past week that an in-depth probe into the onslaught was underway. It volition beryllium based connected much elaborate analyses of the video feeds of the onslaught and its aftermath, and different intelligence. Investigators bash not person entree to the onslaught site, which similar the remainder of Kabul is nether Taliban control.

Meantime, elder subject officials importune the drone onslaught prevented much American and Afghan casualties.

In a quality league connected Monday, General McKenzie, the caput of the Central Command, gave nary details astir the circumstances surrounding the onslaught different than to accidental that it dealt a crushing stroke to ISIS-K arsenic it sought to present 1 past onslaught earlier the U.S. withdrawal.

General Milley echoed those comments a fewer days later. “At this point, we deliberation the procedures were correctly followed, and this was a righteous strike,” helium told reporters. “Were determination others killed? Yes, determination are others killed. Who they are, we don’t know.”

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