The Cable

No Criminal Charges for U.S. Personnel Involved in Deadly Afghan Airstrike

U.S.military brass admit fault for the incident but refuse to press charges.

KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN - NOVEMBER 4:  A damaged hospital aftermath of  the clashes between Taliban and Afghan security forces is seen in Kunduz, Afghanistan on November 4, 2015. Afghan government forces took back the control of the city of Kunduz, three days after it was captured by the Taliban. (Photo by Sayed Khodaberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN - NOVEMBER 4: A damaged hospital aftermath of the clashes between Taliban and Afghan security forces is seen in Kunduz, Afghanistan on November 4, 2015. Afghan government forces took back the control of the city of Kunduz, three days after it was captured by the Taliban. (Photo by Sayed Khodaberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The U.S. military will punish 16 servicemembers — including a two-star general — for a deadly airstrike on a charity hospital in Afghanistan last October that killed 42 doctors, medical staff and patients, defense officials confirmed to Foreign Policy. No criminal charges will be filed, however, and the punishments range from letters of reprimand to counseling.

Gen. Joseph Votel, newly installed commander of the U.S. Central Command, is expected to announce the punishments Friday at the Pentagon. A redacted version of the 3,000-page report compiled by U.S. military investigators last year in Afghanistan will be posted to the Defense Department’s Web site, including a short executive summary, a defense official said.

In addition to the two-star general, members of the crew of the AC-130 gunship which blasted the Doctors Without Borders-run hospital, and members of the Army Special Forces team on the ground in Kunduz who called in the attack, are among those who were admonished over the incident.

The lack of criminal charges will likely fail to satisfy the aid group — also known as MSF, after its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières — which has called the attack a “war crime.” The group’s leadership has also called for an independent investigation into the attack.

“A counseling is on the low end of administrative corrective measures and does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing,” said retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, a former deputy judge advocate general of the U.S. Air Force. For example, a counseling “may be along the lines of ‘here’s a situation you could have handled better’ or ‘here’s an area you need to focus on going forward,’” he said.

For most in the military, a counseling would necessarily not be a career-killer, but for a two-star general, it would likely signal a professional dead-end. Three- and four-star positions are legally designated positions that require Senate confirmation, and anything a senator might want to underscore to block the promotion could put a full stop to any promotion.

Of the 16 service members, 11 had their punishments handled by the military command in Afghanistan, and five were referred to the U.S. Special Operations Command, which was led by Votel until he took over at Central Command last month.

In addition to the 42 killed, several dozen others were wounded in the hour-long strike, which U.S. military officials have admitted was on the wrong target.

The tragic strike occurred after several days of intense fighting between Afghan troops and Taliban fighters in the city, in which U.S. Army Green Berets had also been involved. The Americans took up positions several hundred meters from the hospital, but could not see the building itself. That’s where the mistakes began.

The aircrew of the AC-130 launched without a full intelligence brief of the battlefield, and relied almost entirely on a physical description of the building, ignoring the grid coordinates they had been supplied, leading them to strike the hospital instead of their actual target nearby.

Announcing some of the preliminary results of his investigation last November, then-commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell said that the strike “was a direct result of avoidable human error compounded by process and equipment failures.” Campbell’s spokesman, Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, added that members of the crew of the gunship also failed to “follow the rules of engagement” in launching the prolonged attack.

Last month, just days after he replaced Campbell as commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson flew to Kunduz — along with his wife, who has worked in Afghanistan for years — to meet with MSF representatives and family members of the victims. “I wanted to come to Kunduz personally and stand before the families and people of Kunduz to deeply apologize,” he said. “I grieve with you for your loss and suffering, and humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness.”

Photo credit: Sayed Khodaberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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