By Tom Squitieri
WASHINGTON — It was the white Toyota Corolla that caught the attention of Central Command, convincing them that was the vehicle carrying a terrorist bent on attacking Abbey Gate at Kabul airport.
Perhaps their next clue was a man with a beard; both are beyond ubiquitous in Kabul specifically and Afghanistan generally, where white Toyota Corollas account for 90 percent of the vehicles.
The deadly attack, which U.S. Central Command called a “tragic mistake” after America’s top general called it “righteous,” puts into further jeopardy the credibility of the Pentagon as well as the merit and belief in the efficiency and accuracy of so-called over the horizon actions.
The Costs of War Project, in a report released on September 1, 2021, said at least 46,319 civilians have been killed from the fighting in Afghanistan. At least 10 more have now been added, and there may have been others killed in an earlier August drone strike on which the Pentagon remains mum.
“The problem the Biden administration faces after the strike is that they want to show that the United States is still engaged and willing to use military force. However, fear of making further errors will make that difficult,” Mark Cancian, a senior adviser in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.
“Targeting has become much more difficult without a presence on the ground to get tips from the local population and provide additional means of surveillance,” he said. “Over the horizon counterterrorism is not impossible, we’ve done it in Yemen and elsewhere, but it is difficult and more prone to error.”
Skepticism of the efficiency of over the horizon prowess has increased to the point where many snidely now call it “over-the-rainbow” action.
Some say this error could have been prevented, starting with the fallacy of the certainly of a terrorist driving that specific white Toyota Corolla.
“It was an unforced error, meaning they could have withheld launching that strike, our troops would still have been protected, and these 10 people would still be alive,” retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, said.
“The drone operators had the vehicle in their sights. They knew it was parked in the garage, away from any American troops. All they had to do was be patient a little longer, and they would have realized that the car never moved against anyone in a threatening manner, and they wouldn’t have had to pull the trigger,” he said. “But instead, they decided to be careless and pull the trigger ‘just in case’.”
Officials told reporters in the 36 hours preceding the strike more than 60 different pieces of intelligence related to imminent threats were collected, with some intelligence corroborating and some conflicting. One of the strongest leads of what was to be an imminent attack centered on a compound — point number one — about three kilometers from the airport, they said.
“One of the most recurring aspects of the intelligence was that ISIS-K would utilize a white Toyota Corolla as a key element in the next attack,” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told Pentagon reporters. “At 8:52 A.M. local time on 29 August a white Toyota Corolla arrived at point number one, the compound we believed to be a key area of interest associated with imminent threats to the airport.”
Eyes-in-the-sky spent almost eight hours of following the white Toyota Corolla through Kabul traffic — in that sea of other white Toyota Corollas — and included a stop at the office of the international humanitarian office where the driver worked. Males came and left the vehicle, items were placed in the car and removed, all observed as it moved from point to point. Then a Hellfire missile struck the white Toyota Corolla while it was parked back at the original location point number one, killing seven innocent children and three innocent adults.
“Our investigation now concludes that the strike was a tragic mistake,” McKenzie said. He insisted it was not a rush strike and rejected a question that stated it was “a complete and utter failure.”
The Pentagon initially maintained the massive explosion that followed the strike was likely caused by explosive placed in the car. That was also false.
“They call it a mistake. That is the problem with over the horizon (strikes) is they are going to be operating off of poor human intelligence. That was one of the arguments used to stay in Afghanistan, so they could engage strikes,” Adam Weinstein, a research fellow for the Middle East Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said.
“In some ways, the military does not have accountability but are asked to do something impossible,” he said. “These strikes are inherently problematic.”
In 2015, the U.S. military killed scores of innocent civilians in strikes in Afghanistan, including after mistakenly being certain a Doctors Without Borders hospital was a terrorist lair. Sixteen in the ranks were disciplined but no commanders resigned or were reassigned and no one was court-martialed.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to refuse to disclose details of an earlier drone strike the military claims targeted two “planners and facilitators” from ISIS-K traveling in a car near the eastern city of Jalalabad. Though the Pentagon has maintained there had not been any civilian casualties in that hit, a community elder in Jalalabad told reporters that three people were killed and four were wounded.