U.S. military commanders blamed an American special operations commander on the ground, the aircrew of the attack aircraft in the sky, commanders at Bagram airbase, and faulty equipment for a string of bad decisions that led them on Oct. 3 to destroy the Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing dozens of civilians.
Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the U.S. investigation found that:
- The crew of the AC-130 gunship was not properly briefed before their mission.
- Air and ground personnel failed to follow rules of engagement.
- The ground commander did not have the authority to direct the airstrike.
- Communications and targeting computer malfunctions targeted the wrong location.
- Once on site, the aircrew independently chose to strike a building they believed to be the legitimate target.
- The aircrew proceeded to use force that was disproportionate to the threat.
As a result, the hospital was struck repeatedly for 29 minutes before U.S. commanders realized their mistake, resulting in one of the military’s worst civilian casualty tragedies of the 14-year Afghanistan war—a war in which President Barack Obama declared official combat was supposed to have ended one year ago.
“This was a tragic but avoidable accident caused by human error,” said Campbell, who somberly read a lengthy and detailed account of the events and problems leading up to the strike, accepting blame on behalf of the U.S. military. Campbell said the aircrew did not know they were striking the hospital, thinking they were hitting a different target several hundred meters away.
Campbell said he was still reviewing the findings. He took no questions from the press, instead leaving his one-star spokesman to read pre-written answers in response to frustrated reporters in Kabul and at the Pentagon who sought to clarify the military’s accounting of events.
Several questions remain unanswered, including whether the human errors Campbell detailed were in fact illegal actions, how many people have been suspended and remain under investigation, and just how high up the chain of command will responsibility for the errant strike be assigned. His spokesman, Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, deputy chief of staff for communications, would not describe Campbell’s role in the investigation or whether he was subject to it. He also refused to say whether the command welcomed calls for investigations by non-U.S. government bodies, such as the United Nations.
The Defense Department has yet to release the full investigation, or even the a 5-page executive summary that officials said Campbell was summarizing.
Timeline of Errors
According to Campbell, the military’s investigation was conducted outside of his chain of command and found a timeline of errors beginning in the days before the strike. On Sept. 30, U.S. special operations forces left the Kunduz airfield to begin clearing operations across the city and to set up a control center at the provincial chief of police compound. By early Oct. 3, Campbell said, those forces had been in heavy fighting for five days, longer than anticipated. Before the fighting, MSF gave their hospital coordinates to U.S. headquarters. Campbell said those were received and distributed.
On Oct. 3, Afghan forces requested help in clearing insurgents from the former National Directorate of Security building. The Afghans gave accurate coordinates to U.S. forces, Campbell said, and the the special operations commander at the police compound directed an airstrike. From there, the mistakes rapidly piled up.
According to Campbell, the strike order was sent to an AC-130 gunship that had hastily taken off earlier on a different mission: provide cover fire from special operators fighting elsewhere. The aircrew was redirected to the new area by the commander at the police compound. The gunship’s communications equipment was malfunctioning, so its targeting computer did not receive the hospital’s no-go coordinates. The aircrew also shifted to a wider orbit to avoid potential missile fire, which caused a second computer error.
“When the aircrew entered the coordinates into their fire control systems, the coordinates correlated to an open field over 300 meters from the NDS headquarters,” Campbell said. “This happened because the aircraft was several miles beyond its normal orbit and its sensors were degraded at that distance.”
The computer picked the wrong location. The aircrew instead visually spotted a large building near the field that “roughly matched” the description given to them by the Joint Terminal Attack Controller, or JTAC. “At night, the aircrew was unable to identify any signs of the hospital’s protected status,” Campbell said. They saw a building and attacked.
It didn’t end there. Once the aircraft returned to its original orbit, the targeting computer identified the correct location, but the aircrew did not notice and continued to strike. “The crew remained fixated on the physical description of the facility,” Campbell said. They did not go back to their grid coordinates. They relied on visual identification, but did not notice there was no hostile fire at the compound, which was another mistake, the general said.
The aircrew was not alone in blame. Because of the malfunctioning communications equipment, the command at Bagram thought the gunship was about to attack its original target — the special operations forces who had requested immediate cover fire.
“The headquarters was aware of the coordinates for the MSF Trauma Center and had access to the no-strike list, but did not realize that the grid coordinates for the target matched a location on the no-strike list or that the aircrew was preparing to fire on a hospital.”
The result: 30 dead and 37 injured.
“The strike began at 2:08 a.m. At 2:20 a.m., a SOF officer at Bagram received a call from MSF advising that their facility was under attack. It took the headquarters and the U.S. Special Operations commander until 2:37 a.m. to realize the fatal mistake. At that time, the AC-130 had already ceased firing. The strike lasted for approximately 29 minutes,” Campbell said.
Shoffner said the U.S. would help rebuild the hospital. In the meantime, several operators and officers still face pending disciplinary actions, but he would not say who or how many, nor if they included Campbell, who remains in command. Campbell said NATO’s own review of events, which does not include disciplinary recommendations, is expected soon.
“We have learned from this terrible incident,” Campbell said, soberly. “We will also take appropriate administrative and disciplinary action through a process that is fair and thoroughly considers the available evidence. The cornerstone of our military justice system is the independence of decision makers following a thorough investigation such as this one. We will study what went wrong, and take the right steps to prevent it in the future. As I said in an earlier statement, this was a tragic mistake. U.S. forces would never intentionally strike a hospital or other protected facility. Our deepest condolences go to all of the individuals and families that were affected by this tragic incident. We will offer our assistance to Doctors Without Borders in rebuilding their hospital in Kunduz. Doctors Without Borders is a respected humanitarian organization that does important life-saving work, not only within Afghanistan, but around the world. Alongside our Afghan partners, we will work to assist and support them in the critical role they play in this country.”