A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Gen. Richard D. Clarke. This article has been corrected.
Military officials had said previously that the attack on Aug. 29 was not the result of criminal negligence. In November, the Air Force inspector general who led an independent investigation of the incident said that while the strike did not violate laws of war, the evidence suggested that mistakes were made as a result of what he called confirmation bias on the part of the analysts and commanders involved.
That review did not recommend any disciplinary action either, despite Pentagon leaders’ admission that the strike was a “tragic mistake.”
The recommendations Austin approved were offered to him last month by the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., and the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, Gen. Richard D. Clarke. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters during a news briefing Monday that “there was no recommendation by either of them about accountability.”
Instead, the recommendations they made were primarily concerned with “how intelligence is gathered, analyzed, shared, assessed and developed” into targeting recommendations as well as how such information is communicated, Kirby said. He declined to offer further detail, saying the recommendations were classified.
Spokesmen for U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command had no comment.
Austin’s decision was first reported Monday by the New York Times.
The botched drone strike was carried out just days after a suicide bomber struck outside Hamid Karzai International Airport, killing 13 U.S. service members and at least 170 Afghans, while coalition forces raced to evacuate American personnel and Afghan allies following the central government’s collapse.
The military officials who approved the attack — whom have not been identified publicly — believed they were targeting an operative of Islamic State-Khorasan, the terrorist group’s arm in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But, as evidence later showed, what they suspected were explosives inside a white Toyota Corolla proved to be water tanks for the aid worker’s, Zamarai Ahmadi, family.
The Pentagon conceded its mistakes after The Washington Post and two other news organizations published investigations in September that each concluded there was no evidence Ahmadi was transporting explosives.
Top U.S. military leaders initially defended the operation as a “righteous strike.” But as more details emerged revealing the extent of the error, the Pentagon promised to make “condolence payments” to the victims’ families.
Those payments have not been issued yet, Kirby told reporters Monday, saying that while “we want to effect this as soon as possible,” officials want to make sure that the money is paid “in the most safe and responsible way so that we know it’s getting to the right people and only the right people.”
Kirby also said that the Pentagon is still trying to obtain “the identifying information that we need to move family members out of Afghanistan as expeditiously as we can.” He declined to offer a timeline for how much longer it might take.
The Aug. 29 event is one of many in which U.S. airstrikes killed civilians with no one in the military being held to account. A report published Sunday by the New York Times found that in the war against ISIS, one small, secretive strike cell was responsible for “tens of thousands of bombs and missiles” that were dropped in Syria, many of which killed civilians. The report claims the unit intentionally “circumvented rules imposed to protect noncombatants,” alarming military and intelligence officials whose complaints about the civilian carnage appeared to go nowhere.
Asked about that reporting Monday, Kirby insisted that when the Pentagon says it takes civilian casualties “seriously, we mean it.”
“It doesn’t mean that we always get it right, and when we don’t get it right, we want those mistakes investigated,” Kirby said. “We want to learn more about how it happened and how we can prevent it from happening in the future.”
The military seldom recommends severe punishment as part of such investigations. Even in 2016, when 16 service members were disciplined for an airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, the penalties ranged from formal counseling to reprimands. No one was subjected to court-martial.
The next inflection point is likely to come when the military completes its investigation into a March 2019 strike on Baghouz, Syria. The attack killed dozens of people, including women and children, in one of the Islamic State’s last remaining strongholds there. Some U.S. officials have questioned whether it amounted to a war crime. U.S. Central Command has said that “some women and children, whether through indoctrination or choice, decided to take up arms in this battle and as such could not strictly be classified as civilians.”
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.