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Pentagon Calls Drone Strike Which Killed Afghan Civilians A 'Tragic Mistake'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Pentagon says it made a tragic mistake when it launched a drone strike in Afghanistan late last month. The strike was intended to hit the masterminds of an attack on the Kabul airport a few days earlier, but instead, 10 civilians, including seven children, were killed. NPR's Tom Bowman joins me now from the Pentagon.

Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: What do we now know about what happened on August 29, as opposed to what we thought happened with this drone strike on August 29?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, remember there was a suicide attack just three days before. Thirteen U.S. service members were killed outside Kabul airport. The U.S. was aware of more attacks, and numerous intelligence information centered on a car bomb with a white Toyota. And this particular one we're talking about here made several stops, including one stop close to the airport. They saw them place items in the car. It looked like canisters - actually, turned out to be just water. They watched this white Toyota for eight hours before striking it with a Hellfire missile from a drone. But in this case, the man in the car was 43-year-old Zemari Ahmadi, who was an aid worker with a group called Nutrition and Education International. He and others were killed. I asked General McKenzie, how could a complete and utter failure like this have happened? And he said, you know, he wouldn't characterize it that way. He said, listen; we had a lot going on. We're checking on other possible attacks. This particular strike, he said, was not up to our standards.

KELLY: Indeed - an aid worker, not a terrorist. Consequences? Anybody going to be held responsible, Tom?

BOWMAN: Well, I asked if anyone would be held responsible. He said, we're continuing that line of investigation. He didn't want to say anything more because it involves personnel. The general was also asked whether any payments would be made to the families of the dead. He said they're looking into that but had no information. And meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released a statement saying the Pentagon would review what happened and whether any changes need to be made for any such airstrike approvals or procedures and whether anything needs to be changed. Now, I do know from my own reporting in Afghanistan over the years that when an Afghan civilian is killed, the normal payment to a family - $2,500.

KELLY: OK. What does this mean, Tom, for the future of the drone program? Do we even know? I mean, we know that U.S. ground forces are out of Afghanistan, but we know that the U.S. has continued to carry on drone strikes in places where U.S. forces are not on the ground, places like Pakistan. So where does this go?

BOWMAN: Well, remember they talked about over-the-horizon operations that could target, let's say, al-Qaida or ISIS terrorists in Afghanistan. The general said this mistaken strike was different. This was a defensive strike. They had to move quickly because of what was viewed as an imminent threat. They had no time to wait, he said. With the future over-the-horizon effort against, let's say, al-Qaida or ISIS, he said, you'll have to watch a potential target for days at a time. You look at what's known as a pattern of life to determine whether something is indeed a legitimate target. You have the luxury of waiting. In this case, you didn't. But even with the luxury of waiting in the future, that doesn't guarantee innocents won't die.

KELLY: NPR's Tom Bowman reporting from the Pentagon the news that the Pentagon now says it made a tragic mistake when it launched a drone strike in Afghanistan last month.

Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

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