US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has decided against disciplining any members of the United States military for an August drone attack in Kabul that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, the New York Times and several US news outlets reported on Monday.
An internal Pentagon review concluded last month that the August 29 bombing in the Afghan capital did not violate the laws of war and was not caused by misconduct or criminal negligence.
The New York Times first reported on Austin’s decision, citing an unidentified senior Pentagon official who said the defence secretary had approved a recommendation from two US military commanders not to discipline any personnel involved in the attack.
The Washington Post, NBC News, and The Associated Press later confirmed the decision, also citing unidentified US officials.
Asked about the investigation during a news briefing on Monday afternoon, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not directly confirm the media outlets’ reports.
Kirby said last month’s review left it to US commanders to reprimand military officials over the drone attack if necessary, and that Austin had asked two top generals for recommendations on how to proceed after the bombing.
The generals submitted their recommendations, which did not deal “with issues of accountability”, and Austin approved them, Kirby said, without elaborating further.
“I do not anticipate there being issues of personal accountability to be had with respect to the August 29 air strike,” the spokesman told reporters.
‘Innocent, helpless children’
The Biden administration acknowledged in September that the drone attack killed civilians.
The military initially defended the bombing as a “righteous strike”, insisting that it hit operatives from a group affiliated with ISIL (ISIS) who were planning an imminent attack on Kabul’s airport, where US troops were conducting a large evacuation operation.
Austin personally apologised for the bombing and promised a “thorough review” of the incident.
But on November 3, US Air Force Inspector General Sami Said said the bombing was an “honest mistake” caused by a series of execution errors, including communication breakdowns. “But it’s not criminal conduct, random conduct, negligence,” Said said at that time.
That conclusion was widely criticised by rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the findings failed to provide the victims’ families with “meaningful transparency and accountability for the wrongful killing of their loved ones”.
Family members of the August 29 drone raid victims told Al Jazeera after the attack that the 10 people killed ranged in age from two to 40 years old. “They were innocent, helpless children,” Aimal Ahmadi, whose nieces and nephews were killed in the attack, told Al Jazeera at the time.
One of the victims was Aimal’s brother, Zemari Ahmadi, who was driving the vehicle that was bombed. Zemari worked for US-based aid agency Nutrition and Education International (NEI).
The group’s founder and president, Steven Kwon, denounced the Pentagon’s decision not to hold any US military personnel responsible for the bombing as “shocking”.
“How can our military wrongly take the lives of 10 precious Afghan people, and hold no one accountable in any way?” Kwon told the New York Times on Monday.
Push for accountability
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Washington, DC, said that “it does appear that nobody will be held accountable for that drone strike despite the fact that the Pentagon admitted liability to it”.
The Pentagon has said that it cannot release the procedures of the investigations “because these are operational matters that may impinge on national security”, Hanna reported on Monday.
“The Pentagon has lots of ways in which to drop the curtain over these particular issues. Whether Congress takes it up in any form? Well, that’s something that remains to be seen, but … that has happened seldom – if ever – in the past,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kirby told reporters during the briefing that the Pentagon is working with NEI to “expeditiously” move the surviving family members out of Afghanistan and give them compensation payments, without specifying the amount.
That follows an October announcement from the Biden administration that the US would pay relatives of the 10 people killed in the attack, as well as offer relocation support.
The drone attack came days after a suicide bombing near the airport in Kabul claimed by Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), killed more than 150 Afghans as well as 13 US service members.
The US military has said it airlifted more than 110,000 people out of the Afghan capital in August after the Taliban took over the country. The last American troops withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of that month, bringing to a close the US’s 20-year war.
But the Biden administration has said it will continue to use aerial attacks, including drone raids, to deal with security threats in Afghanistan and counter ISKP.
“We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence,” President Joe Biden said in a speech on August 16.
“If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan. We’ve developed counterterrorism, over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”