The highest-ranking US military official declared last week that a drone attack on a sedan car near the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, was a “fair attack” that thwarted a plan by the Islamic State’s Afghan branch in the last moments of effort to remove people from the country.
The official in question, General Mark Milley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that secondary explosions following the Aug. 29 drone attack confirmed the military’s conclusion that the attacked car contained explosives — either suicide vests or a big bomb. Milley said military planners took the correct precautions to limit the risks to nearby civilians.
But military officials recognize that preliminary military analysis of the attack and the surrounding circumstances provides far less conclusive evidence to support that claim. The analysis also raises questions about an attack that, according to friends and family of the stricken car driver, killed 10 people, seven of them children.
So far there is no conclusive evidence that the car contained explosives. The preliminary analysis concluded that it is “possible to probable” that this was the case, according to officials informed of the analysis.
Drone operators and analysts surveyed the small yard where the sedan was parked for just a few seconds. As no civilians were sighted, officials said, a commander ordered the attack. But grainy live video footage shows other figures approaching the vehicle seconds later, just as the Hellfire missile was firing toward the target.
According to four US officials briefed on the preliminary military analysis or parts of it, the attack unfolded as follows:
At around 9 am on Aug. 29, a white sedan, likely a Toyota Corolla, pulled out of a complex three miles northwest of Hamid Karzai International Airport. Based on information from informants, electronic staples and images taken by US surveillance planes, intelligence analysts believed the complex was a hideout for planners and aid workers from the Islamic State Khorasan, or EI-K, the branch of the terrorist organization EI in Afghanistan. .
Just three days earlier, an EI-K suicide bomber had detonated an exceptionally large 12-kilogram explosive vest at the airport’s Abbey gate, scattering lethal bomb shrapnel in a 70-foot radius and killing 13 US military personnel and more than 170 Afghan civilians.
US intelligence analysts had intercepted messages from EI-K conspirators indicating that another major attack on the airport was being planned. An attack was imminent that Sunday, two days before the US evacuation effort was due to end. Thus, any vehicle entering or leaving the complex that morning drew the attention of analysts. But traders paid special attention to a white sedan caught in the feed of an MQ-9 Reaper drone flying over Kabul.
Intercepted communications from the hideout indicated that the conspirators were directing the car on some sort of tortuous mission in the Afghan capital. The driver was ordered to find a motorcyclist. Moments later, the car did just that. This pattern continued for several hours during which the sedan made several stops in Kabul, sometimes picking up or dropping off passengers.
Just before 4 pm, the sedan pulled into a complex unknown to Americans located between five and eight kilometers southwest of the airport. A few minutes later, the driver and three other men placed several wrapped packages in the trunk of the vehicle. To the analysts watching the live broadcast, the men appeared to be struggling to lift and carry heavy packages with great care — as they would if the packages contained explosives.
The driver and the men got into the sedan and headed north. The men were disembarking on the way. At around 4:45 pm the driver, now alone, parked in a small yard 2.5 km west of the airport, just south of the original hideout. Another man came out to greet him.
China, Middle Land
At this point the tactical commander controlling the Reaper armed drones had to make a quick decision. He had been given the power to order attacks from General Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of the Central Military Command in Tampa, Florida. Military officials declined to provide the commander’s identity, rank or organization, but said he is an experienced operator who has carried out many drone strikes in many places where US forces have fought.
The rules of engagement allowed the military to launch an attack if intelligence analysts had a “reasonable degree of certainty” that they had a legitimate EI-K target and had determined that there was “reasonable certainty” that women, children, or other civilians were not. combatants would be wounded.
Operators quickly scanned the limited space in the yard and saw only one other man talking to the driver. The commander concluded that this would be the most favorable place and time to attack. If Americans waited longer and the vehicle moved through heavy traffic or approached the airport, the risk to civilians would be much greater — either from a drone attack or the detonation of suicide vests or a powerful car bomb.
The Americans fired. The Hellfire missile hit its target in less than a minute. As the missile approached the target, drone operators could see in the video feed that other figures were approaching the sedan.
Armed with a warhead containing nine kilos of explosives, Hellfire hit the vehicle full on, creating the first explosion at 4:50 pm. A few seconds later there was a second, bigger fireball. Authorities say a preliminary assessment by experts concluded that it is “possible to likely” that the second explosion was caused by explosives in the car, not a gas tank or something else.
The military analysis admitted that at least three civilians died. General Milley told reporters that at least one other person killed in the attack was “an IS cooperator.” But other Pentagon officials also say they have little information about the driver, identified by colleagues and family members as Zemari Ahmadi. Neighbors, colleagues and relatives said he was an engineer for the California-based humanitarian organization Nutrition and Education International and had no ties to EI-K.
Military officials concluded that Ahmadi was an EI-K co-worker in large part because of his actions as a driver, from the moment the white sedan left hiding until the attack that killed him.
Immediately after the attack, all communications from the EI-K were silenced. To protect their operational security, members of the group often remain silent after a drone attack like the one on Aug. 29, knowing that US agents will be listening. A senior US military official said that silence continued through Friday (3).
Senior military officials insist the drone attack has deterred more American and Afghan casualties. At an Aug. 30 press conference, McKenzie, head of Central Command, did not elaborate on the circumstances of the attack, saying only that he dealt a crushing blow to EI-K as the group was trying to launch a last attack first. completion of the American withdrawal.
General Milley echoed that statement a few days later. “Right now, we feel that the correct procedures were followed and that it was a fair attack,” he told reporters. “What if other people were killed? Yes, there are others who were killed. We don’t know who they are.”