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ImageCredit…Sarahbeth Maney/ The New York Times
Top U.S. military officers acknowledged publicly for the first time that they had advised President Biden not to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan ahead of the chaotic evacuation during which 13 American service members were killed.
Appearing before a Senate panel, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that military leaders were able to give their advice to the president during the lead-up to Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw. But, the general said, “Decision makers are not required in any manner or form to follow that advice.”
General Milley testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command. Both men, along with General Milley, were said to have advised Mr. Biden not to withdraw all troops. During the hearing, Generals Milley and McKenzie confirmed that.
Senators pressed the three men on why the Pentagon failed to predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and Afghan military, why the United States did not start evacuating Americans and vulnerable Afghans from the country sooner, and whether Mr. Biden heeded their advice to keep a counterterrorism force of 2,500 on the ground.
Mr. Austin, a former four-star Army general who served in Afghanistan, conceded that the collapse of the Afghan army in the final weeks of the war — in many cases without firing a shot — took top commanders by surprise.
“We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we didn’t grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that the Taliban commanders struck with local leaders,” Mr. Austin said, referring to Ashraf Ghani, the former president of Afghanistan who fled the country as the Taliban took control.
“We failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight,” Mr. Austin said.
The hearing was also the first opportunity for General Milley to address criticism about his actions during the last tumultuous months of the Trump administration.
“My loyalty to this nation, its people, and the Constitution hasn’t changed and will never change as long as I have a breath to give,” General Milley said in his opening remarks. “I firmly believe in civilian control of the military as a bedrock principle essential to this republic and I am committed to ensuring the military stays clear of domestic politics.”
General Milley used part of his opening comments to address the turmoil of recent revelations in the book “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. He said he made an Oct. 30 call to his Chinese counterpart, just before the November presidential elections, because there was “intelligence which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States.” He added that senior U.S. officials, including Mark Esper, the secretary of defense at the time, and Mike Pompeo, then the secretary of state, were aware of the calls.
Austin Defends Air Base Closure Amid Afghanistan Withdrawal
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III defended the Biden administration’s decision to close Bagram Air Base, the military’s main hub in Afghanistan, and focus on defending Kabul’s international airport for evacuations.
Retaining Bagram would have required putting as many as 5,000 U.S. troops in harm’s way just to operate and defend it, and it would have contributed little to the mission that we’ve been assigned. And that was to protect and defend the embassy, which was some 30 miles away. That distance from Kabul also rendered Bagram of little value any evacuation. The staying at Bagram, even for counterterrorism purposes, meant staying at war in Afghanistan, something that the president made clear that he would not do. And as for the mission’s end, my judgment remains that extending beyond the end of August would have greatly imperiled our people and our mission. The Taliban made clear that their cooperation would end on the 1st of September. And as you know, we face grave and growing threats from ISIS-K. Staying longer than we did would have made it even more dangerous for our people, and would not have significantly changed the number of evacuees we could get out. The fact that the Afghan Army that we and our partners trained simply melted away in many cases without firing a shot took us all by surprise, and it would be dishonest to claim otherwise. We need to consider some uncomfortable truths. That we didn’t fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in the senior ranks. That we didn’t grasp the damaging effect the frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders. That we didn’t anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that the Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of the Doha agreement. And that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers. And finally, that we failed to grasp that there was only so much for which, and for whom, many of the Afghan forces would fight.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III defended the Biden administration’s decision to close Bagram Air Base, the military’s main hub in Afghanistan, and focus on defending Kabul’s international airport for evacuations.CreditCredit…Sarabeth Maney/The New York Times
Mr. Austin defended the Biden administration’s decision to close the sprawling Bagram Air Base, the military’s main hub in Afghanistan, in early July and instead focus on defending Kabul’s international airport as the main gateway in and out of the country, and acknowledged that the Pentagon badly misjudged the Afghan military’s will to fight.
“Retaining Bagram would have required putting as many as 5,000 U.S. troops in harm’s way, just to operate and defend it,” Mr. Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee in the first of two days of congressional hearings on Afghanistan. “And it would have contributed little to the mission that we had been assigned: that was to protect and defend our embassy some 30 miles away.”
The secretary also defended the administration’s decision to end the frantic 17-day evacuation airlift by Aug. 31. “The Taliban made clear that their cooperation would end on the first of September, and as you know, we faced grave and growing threats from ISIS-K,” Mr. Austin said, referring to the Islamic State branch in Afghanistan. “Staying longer than we did would have made it even more dangerous for our people and would not have significantly changed the number of evacuees we could get out.”
General Milley echoed the danger that staying past the Aug. 31 deadline posed to U.S. troops.
“On the 1st of September we were going to go back to war again with the Taliban,” he said. “That would have resulted in significant casualties on the U.S. side and would have put American citizens still on the ground there at significant risk.”
But in an acknowledgment of the ongoing repercussions of the Taliban’s takeover of the country, General Milley said that American credibility around the world has been damaged by the ignominious end to the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Pressed by Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, General Milley said that American “credibility with allies and partners around the world and with adversaries is being intensely reviewed by them to see which way this is going to. And I think ‘damage’ is one word that could be used, yes.”
The hearing is the first of back-to-back Senate and House hearings this week where General Milley is also expected to be asked why he declared a U.S. drone attack in Kabul last month “a righteous strike” even after military officials said they were investigating reports of civilian casualties. The Pentagon acknowledged a week later that the strike was a tragic mistake which killed 10 people, including seven children. General Milley tacitly conceded that he spoke too soon, calling the error “heart-wrenching.”
VideoGen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said calls to his Chinese counterpart at the end of President Trump’s term, and a meeting where he told generals to alert him if Mr. Trump tried to launch a nuclear weapon, were in line with his duties.CreditCredit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended his actions in the tumultuous last months of the Trump administration, insisting that calls to his Chinese counterpart and a meeting in which he told generals to alert him if the president tried to launch a nuclear weapon were all part of his job duties as the country’s most senior military officer.
“My loyalty to this nation, its people, and the Constitution hasn’t changed and will never change as long as I have a breath to give,” he said. “I firmly believe in civilian control of the military as a bedrock principle essential to this republic and I am committed to ensuring the military stays clear of domestic politics.”
General Milley used the ending of his opening remarks during before the Senate Armed Services Committee to address the turmoil of recent revelations in the book “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. He said he was directed by Mark Esper, then the secretary of defense, to make a call on Oct. 30 to his Chinese counterpart because there was “intelligence which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States.”
“I know, I am certain, President Trump did not intend on attacking the Chinese and it is my directed responsibility to convey presidential orders and intent,” he said. “My task at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent: calm, steady, de-escalate. We are not going to attack you.”
General Milley also addressed the frantic phone call with Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California two days after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. A transcript of the call in the book said that the general agreed with Ms. Pelosi’s characterization of President Donald J. Trump as being “crazy.”
Speaking to the Senate panel, General Milley said, “On 8 January, Speaker of the House Pelosi called me to inquire about the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons. I sought to assure her that nuclear launch is governed by a very specific and deliberate process. She was concerned and made various personal references characterizing the president. I explained to her that the president is the sole nuclear launch authority, and he doesn’t launch them alone, and that I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States.”
Later that afternoon, he said, he called the generals involved in that process to “refresh on these procedures.”
How a U.S. Drone Strike Killed the Wrong Person
A week after a New York Times visual investigation, the U.S. military admitted to a “tragic mistake” in a drone strike in Kabul last month that killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children.
[explosion] In one of the final acts of its 20-year war in Afghanistan, the United States fired a missile from a drone at a car in Kabul. It was parked in the courtyard of a home, and the explosion killed 10 people, including 43-year-old Zemari Ahmadi and seven children, according to his family. The Pentagon claimed that Ahmadi was a facilitator for the Islamic State, and that his car was packed with explosives, posing an imminent threat to U.S. troops guarding the evacuation at the Kabul airport. “The procedures were correctly followed, and it was a righteous strike.” What the military apparently didn’t know was that Ahmadi was a longtime aid worker, who colleagues and family members said spent the hours before he died running office errands, and ended his day by pulling up to his house. Soon after, his Toyota was hit with a 20-pound Hellfire missile. What was interpreted as the suspicious moves of a terrorist may have just been an average day in his life. And it’s possible that what the military saw Ahmadi loading into his car were water canisters he was bringing home to his family — not explosives. Using never-before seen security camera footage of Ahmadi, interviews with his family, co-workers and witnesses, we will piece together for the first time his movements in the hours before he was killed. Zemari Ahmadi was an electrical engineer by training. For 14 years, he had worked for the Kabul office of Nutrition and Education International. “NEI established a total of 11 soybean processing plants in Afghanistan.” It’s a California based NGO that fights malnutrition. On most days, he drove one of the company’s white Toyota corollas, taking his colleagues to and from work and distributing the NGO’s food to Afghans displaced by the war. Only three days before Ahmadi was killed, 13 U.S. troops and more than 170 Afghan civilians died in an Islamic State suicide attack at the airport. The military had given lower-level commanders the authority to order airstrikes earlier in the evacuation, and they were bracing for what they feared was another imminent attack. To reconstruct Ahmadi’s movements on Aug. 29, in the hours before he was killed, The Times pieced together the security camera footage from his office, with interviews with more than a dozen of Ahmadi’s colleagues and family members. Ahmadi appears to have left his home around 9 a.m. He then picked up a colleague and his boss’s laptop near his house. It’s around this time that the U.S. military claimed it observed a white sedan leaving an alleged Islamic State safehouse, around five kilometers northwest of the airport. That’s why the U.S. military said they tracked Ahmadi’s Corolla that day. They also said they intercepted communications from the safehouse, instructing the car to make several stops. But every colleague who rode with Ahmadi that day said what the military interpreted as a series of suspicious moves was just a typical day in his life. After Ahmadi picked up another colleague, the three stopped to get breakfast, and at 9:35 a.m., they arrived at the N.G.O.’s office. Later that morning, Ahmadi drove some of his co-workers to a Taliban-occupied police station to get permission for future food distribution at a new displacement camp. At around 2 p.m., Ahmadi and his colleagues returned to the office. The security camera footage we obtained from the office is crucial to understanding what happens next. The camera’s timestamp is off, but we went to the office and verified the time. We also matched an exact scene from the footage with a timestamp satellite image to confirm it was accurate. A 2:35 p.m., Ahmadi pulls out a hose, and then he and a co-worker fill empty containers with water. Earlier that morning, we saw Ahmadi bring these same empty plastic containers to the office. There was a water shortage in his neighborhood, his family said, so he regularly brought water home from the office. At around 3:38 p.m., a colleague moves Ahmadi’s car further into the driveway. A senior U.S. official told us that at roughly the same time, the military saw Ahmadi’s car pull into an unknown compound 8 to 12 kilometers southwest of the airport. That overlaps with the location of the NGO’s office, which we believe is what the military called an unknown compound. With the workday ending, an employee switched off the office generator and the feed from the camera ends. We don’t have footage of the moments that followed. But it’s at this time, the military said that its drone feed showed four men gingerly loading wrapped packages into the car. Officials said they couldn’t tell what was inside them. This footage from earlier in the day shows what the men said they were carrying — their laptops one in a plastic shopping bag. And the only things in the trunk, Ahmadi’s co-workers said, were the water containers. Ahmadi dropped each one of them off, then drove to his home in a dense neighborhood near the airport. He backed into the home’s small courtyard. Children surrounded the car, according to his brother. A U.S. official said the military feared the car would leave again, and go into an even more crowded street or to the airport itself. The drone operators, who hadn’t been watching Ahmadi’s home at all that day, quickly scanned the courtyard and said they saw only one adult male talking to the driver and no children. They decided this was the moment to strike. A U.S. official told us that the strike on Ahmadi’s car was conducted by an MQ-9 Reaper drone that fired a single Hellfire missile with a 20-pound warhead. We found remnants of the missile, which experts said matched a Hellfire at the scene of the attack. In the days after the attack, the Pentagon repeatedly claimed that the missile strike set off other explosions, and that these likely killed the civilians in the courtyard. “Significant secondary explosions from the targeted vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.” “Because there were secondary explosions, there’s a reasonable conclusion to be made that there was explosives in that vehicle.” But a senior military official later told us that it was only possible to probable that explosives in the car caused another blast. We gathered photos and videos of the scene taken by journalists and visited the courtyard multiple times. We shared the evidence with three weapons experts who said the damage was consistent with the impact of a Hellfire missile. They pointed to the small crater beneath Ahmadi’s car and the damage from the metal fragments of the warhead. This plastic melted as a result of a car fire triggered by the missile strike. All three experts also pointed out what was missing: any evidence of the large secondary explosions described by the Pentagon. No collapsed or blown-out walls, including next to the trunk with the alleged explosives. No sign that a second car parked in the courtyard was overturned by a large blast. No destroyed vegetation. All of this matches what eyewitnesses told us, that a single missile exploded and triggered a large fire. There is one final detail visible in the wreckage: containers identical to the ones that Ahmadi and his colleague filled with water and loaded into his trunk before heading home. Even though the military said the drone team watched the car for eight hours that day, a senior official also said they weren’t aware of any water containers. The Pentagon has not provided The Times with evidence of explosives in Ahmadi’s vehicle or shared what they say is the intelligence that linked him to the Islamic State. But the morning after the U.S. killed Ahmadi, the Islamic State did launch rockets at the airport from a residential area Ahmadi had driven through the previous day. And the vehicle they used … … was a white Toyota. The U.S. military has so far acknowledged only three civilian deaths from its strike, and says there is an investigation underway. They have also admitted to knowing nothing about Ahmadi before killing him, leading them to interpret the work of an engineer at a U.S. NGO as that of an Islamic State terrorist. Four days before Ahmadi was killed, his employer had applied for his family to receive refugee resettlement in the United States. At the time of the strike, they were still awaiting approval. Looking to the U.S. for protection, they instead became some of the last victims in America’s longest war. “Hi, I’m Evan, one of the producers on this story. Our latest visual investigation began with word on social media of an explosion near Kabul airport. It turned out that this was a U.S. drone strike, one of the final acts in the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Our goal was to fill in the gaps in the Pentagon’s version of events. We analyzed exclusive security camera footage, and combined it with eyewitness accounts and expert analysis of the strike aftermath. You can see more of our investigations by signing up for our newsletter.”
A week after a New York Times visual investigation, the U.S. military admitted to a “tragic mistake” in a drone strike in Kabul last month that killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children.CreditCredit…By The New York Times. Video frame: Nutrition & Education International.
Following a New York Times investigation, the Pentagon acknowledged earlier this month that a U.S. drone strike in Kabul on Aug. 29 was a “tragic mistake” that killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children.
The extraordinary admission on Sept. 17 provided a horrific punctuation to the chaotic ending of the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Almost everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, and then days, and then weeks after the Aug. 29 drone strike turned out to be false.
The explosives the military claimed were loaded in the trunk of a white Toyota sedan struck by the drone’s Hellfire missile were probably water bottles, and a secondary explosion in the courtyard in a densely populated Kabul neighborhood where the attack took place was probably a propane or gas tank, officials said.
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command who is testifying before lawmakers on Tuesday, took full responsibility for the botched strike and appeared virtually on Sept. 17 at a Pentagon news conference.
“I offer my profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed,” he said. He added that the Pentagon was exploring giving so-called ex gratia payments to the victims’ families.
Pentagon Admits It Made a ‘Tragic Mistake’ in Kabul Drone Strike
Following a New York Times investigation, the Pentagon acknowledged that a U.S. drone strike in Kabul on Aug. 29 was a “tragic mistake” that killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children.
A comprehensive review of all the available footage and reporting on the matter led us to a final conclusion that as many as 10 civilians were killed in the strike, including up to seven children. At the time of the strike, based upon all the intelligence and what was being reported, I was confident that the strike had averted an imminent threat to our forces at the airport. Based upon that assessment, I and other leaders in the department repeatedly asserted the validity of this strike. I’m here today to set the record straight, and acknowledge our mistakes. I will end my remarks with the same note of sincere and profound condolences to the family and friends of those who died in this tragic strike. We are exploring the possibility of ex-gratia payments. And I’ll finish by saying that while the team conducted the strike did so in the honest belief that they were preventing an imminent attack on our forces and civilian evacuees, we now understand that to be incorrect.
Following a New York Times investigation, the Pentagon acknowledged that a U.S. drone strike in Kabul on Aug. 29 was a “tragic mistake” that killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children.CreditCredit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III ordered a review of the military’s inquiry into the drone strike to determine, among other issues, who should be held accountable and “the degree to which strike authorities, procedures and processes need to be altered in the future.”
Congressional lawmakers, meanwhile, said they wanted their own accounting from the Pentagon, and both Mr. Austin and General McKenzie are sure to face questions and criticism from lawmakers on Tuesday.
Senior Defense Department leaders conceded that the driver of the car, Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group, had nothing to do with the Islamic State, contrary to what military officials had previously asserted. Mr. Ahmadi’s only possible connection to the terrorist group appeared to be a fleeting and innocuous interaction with people in what the military believed was an ISIS safe house in Kabul, an initial link that led military analysts to make one mistaken judgment after another while tracking Mr. Ahmadi’s movements in the sedan for the next eight hours. A Visual Investigation published by The New York Times on Tuesday found that the house in question was in fact an Afghan family home.
The general said the strike was carried out “in the profound belief” that ISIS was about to attack Kabul’s airport, as the organization had done three days earlier, killing more than 140 people, including 13 American service members.
The U.S. Military Said It Was an ISIS Safe House. We Found an Afghan Family Home.
Even as the military apologized for killing 10 civilians by mistake in a drone strike in Kabul, it insisted its target had stopped by an ISIS “safe house.” The New York Times found that the building was actually home to an NGO worker and his family.
On Aug. 29, a U.S. drone strike killed Afghan aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and nine other civilians. The military admitted it was a tragic mistake, but doubled down on one claim: that Ahmadi stopped at an alleged Islamic State safe house and that’s why they started tracking him. “So Point 1 on the map, we do assess very definitely associated with ISIS-K.” But when The Times went to that alleged safe house, this is what we found … … the home of Ahmadi’s boss. Eight hours after Ahmadi stopped here, the military launched the deadly drone strike. So how did this go so wrong? The military, under pressure of what they thought was an imminent threat to the airport, made its first mistake by incorrectly identifying a family home as an Islamic State safe house, which set off a string of fatal errors. To this day, the Pentagon is still unsure about the exact location of that safe house. But a senior military official told The Times they are now exploring the possibility that it may have actually been a neighboring house. One week after a Times story refuted the Pentagon’s account of the strike, officials admitted they killed Ahmadi and his family by mistake. “As many as 10 civilians, including up to seven children, were tragically killed in that strike.” And they provided additional details about Ahmadi’s stop at the alleged safe house. “A white Toyota Corolla arrived at Point No. 1. Two adult males exited the vehicle, met with an adult male in the compound and received a bag from him.” They were confident, a senior military official told The Times, because the information came from the same intelligence sources that had warned about an airport suicide attack days earlier. But The Times interviewed Ahmadi’s boss, Walid, several times. We are only using his first name for his safety. Walid recounted what happened when he got to work the morning of the strike, and showed us the security camera footage from his office. Minutes after Walid called, Ahmadi and a colleague arrived at his house to get the laptop. The military said that as many as six MQ-9 Reaper drones were watching from above. Because of this stop, they tracked Ahmadi for the rest of the day. In security camera footage, we see Zemari Ahmadi arriving at the office 43 minutes later. Back at his home, Walid insisted that his house had nothing to do with the Islamic State. The Times could see no evidence of Islamic State activity. The morning after the drone strike, the Islamic State did fire rockets at the Kabul airport. They used a white Toyota, the same type of car that Ahmadi drove, parked several blocks from Walid’s home. Military officials cited this attack as proof they were watching the right area. “In fact, a little less than 24 hours later rockets will be launched from that point against the airfield.” But the military still can’t account for how it came to connect this specific home to a terrorist group. They started with the wrong house, followed the wrong car and ended up killing the wrong person. A senior military official told The Times that they see no links between Walid and the Islamic State. This and other failures throughout the day raise serious questions about the Pentagon’s intelligence ahead of the strike. And it could add pressure to several ongoing inquiries by the military and lawmakers that will include reviews of the strike and Central Command’s response.
Even as the military apologized for killing 10 civilians by mistake in a drone strike in Kabul, it insisted its target had stopped by an ISIS “safe house.” The New York Times found that the building was actually home to an NGO worker and his family.CreditCredit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, which oversees Afghanistan, apologized on Sept. 17 for a botched drone strike that killed 10 civilians in Kabul.
As he admitted the mistake, he said that the military’s target had stopped at an ISIS “safe house” hours before the attack.
But a new Visual Investigation by The Times found that the house in question was in fact an Afghan family home.
Credit…Sarabeth Maney/The New York Times
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called his Chinese counterpart in the final months of the Trump administration to reassure him that Donald J. Trump had no plans to attack China and that the United States was not collapsing, according to “Peril,” a recently released book by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
“Things may look unsteady,” the chairman, Gen. Mark A. Milley, told Gen. Li Zuocheng of China on Jan. 8, two days after Mr. Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol. “But that’s the nature of democracy, General Li. We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
Yet despite his assurances, General Milley was so concerned about Mr. Trump that later that day he convened a meeting with top commanders to remind them that the procedures for launching a nuclear weapon called for his involvement in such a decision.
In the days leading up to the 2020 election, the book reveals, American intelligence showed that the Chinese believed that Mr. Trump planned to launch a military strike to create an international crisis that he could claim to solve as a last-ditch effort to beat Joseph R. Biden Jr.
General Milley, who had become increasingly concerned about the potential for one misread move to set off combat between the world superpowers, first called General Li around that time on a secret backchannel. He wanted to assure General Li and President Xi Jinping that the United States was not planning to attack China.
On the Jan. 8 call, General Li suggested that Chinese leaders feared that the United States government was unstable. He pressed General Milley over the course of an hour and a half about whether the military was going to take action.
General Li feared that Mr. Trump might be trying to find a moment that he could seize on to remain in power, similar to Hitler’s exploitation in 1933 of an arson fire at the German Reichstag to help institute emergency powers, the book said.
Some Republicans have expressed anger about General Milley’s calls to China, but President Biden said earlier this month that he had “great confidence” in him.