- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The Pentagon is preparing to punish specific members of the U.S. special operations forces and others involved in a bungled airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that left 42 civilians dead. But the move, which has not previously been reported, could also spark new questions about the military’s ability to police itself.
Gen. John Campbell, who commands U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has forwarded an exhaustive 3,000-page investigation into the incident to the U.S. Central Command along with his recommendations for disciplinary action against the troops involved in the airstrike. Officials there and at the U.S. Special Operations Command are now weighing who to punish — and how.
Staffers at the Tampa, Fla.-based Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will likely need “about two to three weeks” to redact the Kunduz report for potential public release, said one defense official who is not authorized to speak for attribution. The official said that no decisions have been made about when and if it might be made public.
One congressional staffer told Foreign Policy that the U.S. Army Green Beret team on the ground on the night of the attack has come under particular scrutiny from investigators for their role in calling in the strike by an AC-130 gunship, which lasted about 30 minutes.
In addition to the 42 killed, including 14 of the aid group’s staffers, several dozen others were wounded. The organization — also known as MSF, after its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières– has called the attack a “war crime.”
Also likely in the crosshairs of investigators is Army Lt. Col. Jason Johnston, the commander of the military’s special operations task force in Afghanistan. Given the strict rules of engagement in Afghanistan, it’s likely that his superior, Army Maj. Gen. Sean Swindell, who oversees all U.S. and NATO special operations forces in the country, and Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott West, the overall commander of the air war in Afghanistan, are also likely to have drawn the attention of the investigators.
If the only military personnel reprimanded are enlisted soldiers or junior officers, it will further infuriate MSF, which has already made clear that it didn’t believe the Pentagon could be trusted adequately investigate itself. The aid group has called for an independent investigation.
A spokesman for the U.S. military command in Afghanistan, Col. Michael Lawhorn, would not comment on the specifics of the report or those involved, but said that any legal process would potentially “have different decisions for different individuals.”
The bungled strike came after several days of intense fighting between Afghan troops and Taliban fighters in the wake of a major Taliban offensive in the city. The American special operations forces had also been involved in heavy ground fighting for several days, and on the night of the tragedy occupied a position several hundred meters away from the hospital, where they couldn’t see the building itself. The aircrew of the AC-130 also relied almost entirely on a physical description of the building while ignoring the correct grid coordinates they had been supplied, leading them to strike the hospital, which matched a physical description of their real target nearby.
Announcing some of the preliminary results of the investigation on Nov. 25, Campbell said that those “most closely associated” with the incident had been suspended from their duties. He added that the strike “was a direct result of avoidable human error compounded by process and equipment failures.”
Campbell’s spokesman, Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, said the investigation found that the “actions of the aircrew and the special operations forces were not appropriate to the threats that they faced.” Members of the crew of the gunship also failed to “follow the rules of engagement” in launching the prolonged attack.
At one point during the air assault, the aircrew sent the coordinates of the building they were hitting to headquarters at Bagram Airfield, but the staff there also failed to realize the location matched the MSF hospital, which was clearly listed as a “no-strike” location.
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