April 29, 2016


[The Afghan government said that it had seen the report and that it welcomed the decision to discipline American troops. But Dawa Khan Meenapal, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, declined to elaborate when asked if the Afghan government had reversed its conclusion that the hospital was being used by the Taliban fighters.]

By Matthew Rosenberg
An employee of Doctors Without Borders in October 2015 inside what
remained of the organization’s hospital, destroyed in an airstrike that left
42 people dead. Credit Najim Rahim/Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Mistakes by the crew flying an AC-130 gunship, compounded by equipment and procedural failures, led to the devastating attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan last year, the Defense Department announced Friday, and 16 American military personnel, including a general officer, have been punished for their roles in the strike.

The punishments for the Oct. 3 attack, which killed 42 people, will be “administrative actions” only, and none of those being disciplined will face criminal charges because the attack was determined to be unintentional. The punishments include suspension and removal from command as well as letters of reprimand, which can seriously damage or end a career.

The new top officer of the military’s Central Command, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, made the announcement during a Pentagon news conference. He said the military had conducted “a thorough investigation,” which was “painstaking” in seeking an “accurate account” of what had occurred.

Its conclusion is that neither the crew members of the gunship who fired on the hospital in the northern city of Kunduz nor the Special Forces on the ground who were directing the strike “knew they were striking a medical facility” and that the attack on the hospital was a result of human errors compounded by “process and equipment failures,” he said.

“This was an extraordinarily intense combat situation,” General Votel told reporters. The troops on the ground, he added, “were doing a variety of actions at the same time: They were trying to support their Afghan partners, they were trying to execute resupply operations, and they were trying to protect themselves.”

But General Votel was clear on one point: The hospital was a protected facility that was at no time being used by active Taliban fighters, though some wounded insurgents had been treated there. His statement directly contradicted the claim by many senior Afghan officials that the hospital was being used by Taliban fighters and was therefore a legitimate target.

Still, the release of the investigation’s findings and the announcement of the disciplinary measures, some of which were first leaked by defense officials last month, were unlikely to satisfy Doctors Without Borders and other human rights groups, many of which have said the attack may have constituted a war crime and called for an independent criminal investigation.

After the announcement, Médecins Sans Frontières, the French name of Doctors Without Borders, reiterated its calls for an independent investigation, saying in a statement “that it cannot be satisfied solely with a military investigation.”

“Today’s briefing amounts to an admission of an uncontrolled military operation in a densely populated urban area, during which U.S. forces failed to follow the basic laws of war,” said Meinie Nicolai, the group’s president. “It is incomprehensible that, under the circumstances described by the U.S., the attack was not called off.”

John Sifton, the Asia policy director of Human Rights Watch, disputed General Votel’s assertion that the airstrike did not constitute a war crime because it was the unintentional result of mistakes and equipment failures, not an intentional attack.

The failure to bring any criminal charges was, “simply put, inexplicable,” Mr. Sifton said.

“General Joseph Votel’s assertion that a war crime must be deliberate, or intentional, is flatly wrong.” Mr. Sifton added. He said that there are legal precedents for war crimes prosecutions based on acts that were committed with recklessness, and that recklessness or negligence do not necessarily absolve someone of criminal responsibility under the United States military code.

The Afghan government said that it had seen the report and that it welcomed the decision to discipline American troops. But Dawa Khan Meenapal, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, declined to elaborate when asked if the Afghan government had reversed its conclusion that the hospital was being used by the Taliban fighters.

The broad outlines of what took place in Kunduz, which days earlier had been overrun by Taliban fighters, were established in the weeks and months after the attack: An American AC-130 gunship, responding to a call for support from Afghan commandos who said they were under fire, mistook the hospital for the intended target — a building in the city being used as a base by the Taliban — and unleashed sustained and repeated barrages from its heavy guns on the medical facility, despite frantic calls from Doctors Without Borders to military commanders.

Friday’s announcement and the release of the report by investigators, which runs more than 3,000 pages, provided the most detailed accounting of the American version of events to date.

The chain of problems began before the AC-130 even left the ground, when an unrelated emergency call for air support forced the aircraft to take off 69 minutes ahead of schedule, the report said. There was no time to fully brief the crew, and a database that would have allowed them to properly identify the hospital as a protected building had not been uploaded to the aircraft’s computers.

Once the AC-130 was airborne, a satellite radio on board failed, cutting off the aircraft’s data link — and the ability to upload the database and other vital information, General Votel said.

After the hulking gunship arrived in the skies above Kunduz, insurgents fired a missile at it, forcing it to retreat to a safe position miles from the intended target, the local headquarters of Afghanistan’s main spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, which had been taken over by the Taliban.

This was no simple evasive maneuver for the gunship. The AC-130 moves slowly, and it is designed to circle above its target in one- to two-mile loops so it can bring to bear a frightening array of weaponry mounted on one side of the aircraft, including a 105-millimeter howitzer.

The targeting instruments aboard the gunship are typically calibrated to pinpoint targets at relatively short distances. The report said that the need to briefly move miles out to avoid ground fire resulted in the crew’s being unable to find the target after it returned to its original position and prepared to commence its attack.

When the crew entered the coordinates of the target provided by Afghan forces — which were correct — the gunship’s systems instead directed the aircraft to an empty field, the report said. The field was obviously not the target. The crew members’ only option was to rely on their own eyes.

Working off a description of the building being used by the Taliban that was passed by Afghan forces through American Special Forces on the ground, the crew ended up training the gunship’s weapons on the Doctors Without Borders hospital, which was about 400 meters, or 1,300 feet, from the correct target.

At one point, a crew member, identified in the report as the TV sensor operator, actually spotted the correct target and said it fit the description that was relayed by Afghan forces. But after “several attempts” to clarify which building should be struck, the aircraft attacked the hospital.

The attack commenced at 2:08 a.m., and General Votel said that the gunship used all its weapons, including the howitzer, decimating the hospital.

It took only 11 minutes for Doctors Without Borders to contact “several U.S. government representatives” and tell them the hospital was under attack, the report said.

But, the report said, it was initially unclear who exactly was firing on the hospital. It was not until 2:38 a.m. that the Special Forces commander on the ground realized the AC-130 was attacking the hospital and called off the attack, the report said. The timeline conflicts with accounts by witnesses, who said the attack lasted more than an hour.

Investigators concluded that steps taken by several American service members during the attack were “inadequate,” and they identified 16 people whose conduct warranted disciplinary action. Twelve were punished by Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of the American-led coalition at the time of the attack, and four others were disciplined by General Votel, who at the time was the commander of United States Special Operations command.

General Votel said on Friday that the 16 service members were not being identified for privacy reasons and because some were still serving in sensitive deployments overseas.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.