U.S. suspends military personnel over airstrike in Afghanistan

Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander for Afghanistan, describes the errors that led to the errant airstrike on a hospital.
Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander for Afghanistan, describes the errors that led to the errant airstrike on a hospital.
Published Nov. 26, 2015

KABUL — The crew of an American gunship that attacked a hospital in Kunduz last month, killing 30, misidentified the target, had suffered a loss of electronic communications, had not been carrying a "no-strike" list though one existed and was beset by "fatigue and a high operational tempo," a U.S. military investigation has concluded.

"This was a tragic and avoidable accident caused primarily by human error," Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander for Afghanistan, said at a news conference in Kabul on Wednesday. But that human error, he said, was "compounded by systems and procedural failures."

Several American personnel, most likely pilots and special operations forces who made the decision that led to one of the deadliest incidents of civilian casualties of the war, have been suspended and could face further disciplinary action.

The location of the Doctors Without Borders Hospital was widely known in Kunduz. The aircrew, Campbell said, confused it with the headquarters of the Afghan intelligence service several hundred yards away, which the Taliban had reportedly seized when they briefly took control of the city, and which was the intended target.

But faulty planning and procedures to approve airstrikes, as well as the absence of a single system to vet proposed targets against a no-strikes list, compounded the mistake, he said.

"The investigation found that some of the U.S. individuals involved did not follow the rules of engagement," said Gen. Wilson Shoffner, the top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan.

Investigators also concluded that those who requested the airstrike, as well as those who executed it, did not verify that a legitimate military target was being hit, Campbell said. That raises a serious question about the extent to which the U.S. military can trust its Afghan partners: The coordinates and call for airstrikes started with the Afghans, Campbell and Shoffner said.

Other questions remain. Just before the attack on the hospital, a U.S. airstrike pummeled an empty warehouse across the street from the Afghan intelligence headquarters. How U.S. personnel could have confused its location only a few hours later is not clear, nor is it clear why the gunship repeatedly bombed the hospital when there was no return fire.

"The U.S. version of events presented today leaves MSF with more questions than answers," said Christopher Strokes, the general director of the medical aid agency, also known by its French acronym MSF, for Medecins Sans Frontieres. "The frightening catalog of errors outlined today illustrates gross negligence on the part of U.S. forces and violations of the rules of war. The destruction of a protected facility without verifying the target . . . cannot only be dismissed as individual human error or breaches of the U.S. rules of engagement."

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The group reiterated its call for an independent investigation.

According to the American report, on the night of Oct. 2, Afghan special forces requested air support to help clear the Taliban from the headquarters of the intelligence service, known as the National Directorate of Security, or NDS. The U.S. special operations commander on the ground agreed, but he had no clear view of either the NDS building or the Doctors Without Borders hospital.

From this point on, errors occurred, Campbell said.

The powerful AC-130 gunship dispatched to provide air support flew out quickly without conducting a normal mission brief and without vital information, including the list of no-strike areas. During the flight, the electronic systems malfunctioned, preventing the pilots from sending or receiving email or electronic messages or transmitting video back to control rooms, Campbell said.

"We have learned from this terrible incident," he said. "We will study what went wrong, and take the right steps to prevent it in the future."