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CIA warned US military before drone attack on Afghan family

By News Desk
September 19, 2021
CIA warned US military before drone attack on Afghan family

WASHINGTON: Just after the US military launched a Hellfire missile to stop a white Toyota Corolla it believed to be an imminent threat to US troops leading the evacuation at the Kabul airport, the CIA issued an urgent warning: Civilians were likely in the area, including possibly children inside the vehicle, according to three sources familiar with the situation.

It was too late. The warning on August 29 came seconds before the missile hit the car, killing 10 civilians, including seven children. It’s not clear whether the military informed the intelligence community that it had decided to pull the trigger — if for no other reason than that the situation was rapidly evolving. The military calls such strikes, which commanders in the field were authorized to take without consulting up the chain of command, “dynamic.”

In some cases, the military might ask the intelligence community to “task” its surveillance drones and other assets to watch a particular car or a particular location. The intelligence community would share data on the targets with the Defense Department in real time, but it is ultimately the military ground force commander’s decision to take the strike.

Some sources say the miscommunication highlights a now-pressing decision for the Biden administration as it weighs how to conduct future strikes in Afghanistan without US troops on the ground there: Will the Defense Department or CIA own the mission? The CIA declined to comment for this story. A spokesman for US Central Command did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Counterterrorism, intelligence and military officials unanimously agree: Without US troops on the ground, identifying the correct target and launching successful strikes on legitimate ISIS-K or al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan has become infinitely harder. Trying to split the mission between two organizations, some current and former officials say, runs the risk that the grave tragedy in Kabul will happen much more frequently.

The intelligence community and the Defense Department have for years worked together to execute counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan but the flow of information and decision-making between the two organizations sometimes hits the air gap between institutions, and in any event, the CIA and the Defense Department operate under different standards for executing strikes of this nature.

r eight hours on August 29, intelligence officials tracked the movements of Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a US aid group, based on a tenuous connection to ISIS-K: Ahmadi had a short interaction with people in what the military believed was an ISIS safe house.

That flimsy clue led military commanders to misinterpret Ahmadi’s movements over the course of a relatively normal day. They watched him load water jugs into the back of the car to bring home and believed they were explosives. What military commanders insisted was a large secondary explosion after the Hellfire hit the Corolla — indicating, senior leaders believed, explosives in the trunk — was actually more likely a propane tank located behind the parked car.

Military commanders did not know Ahmadi’s identity when they began tracking his movements.

Some former intelligence officials take it a step further, claiming that CIA drone strikes kill far fewer civilians that the military’s — but the agency’s figures aren’t public, and outside groups that track drone strike casualties say the US military routinely undercounts its collateral deaths, making an accurate comparison difficult to draw.

The Biden administration insists that it has the tools to carry out successful “over the horizon” missions. McKenzie on Friday argued that the failure of the Aug. 29 strike was not predictive of the challenges of “over the horizon.”

“This was a self-defense strike based on an imminent threat to attack us,” McKenzie said. “That is not the way we would strike in an (over the horizon) mission” — because the standards would be higher for conducting such a strike, he said, and “we’ll have a lot more opportunity probably than we had under this extreme time pressure to take a look at the target.”

But sources tell CNN the Biden administration is still grappling with the mechanics of how it will structure the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan going forward. Some intelligence officials privately belittle “over the horizon” in Afghanistan as “over the rainbow.”