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Will Heads Roll at the Pentagon for the MSF Hospital ‘Mistake’?
Doctors Without Borders says U.S. troops committed a war crime in Kunduz. Three top American officers could pay the price.
In the dark of night, a U.S. warplane swooped in and fired on a target in the northern province of Kunduz that was identified by troops on the ground. The pilots thought they were striking Taliban fighters, but instead killed scores of innocent Afghan civilians.
Officers from the American-led NATO command initially claimed no civilians were in the area, but their account shifted over time, and eventually senior officers acknowledged a terrible mistake had taken place.
That air raid occurred six years ago, but it bears a disturbing resemblance to the disastrous American airstrike on Oct. 3 that left 22 civilians dead at a hospital in the city of Kunduz.
In the case of the 2009 attack, in which a German colonel selected the target, heads rolled: Germany’s defense minister, another senior official, and the country’s top military officer were all forced to resign.
Now the U.S. Defense Department is launching a politically charged probe into whether three American officers, Maj. Gen. Sean Swindell, Maj. Gen. Scott West, and Lt. Col. Jason Johnston will suffer the same fate.
The Pentagon has declined to comment on which officers may be interviewed in the military investigation that is now getting underway, to offer a time frame for the final report, or to outline what punishments, if any, might be levied.
Brig. Gen. Richard Kim has been named to conduct the inquiry into the deadly raid, which killed 22 staff and patients at a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, which has condemned the attack as a war crime. Kim is based in Afghanistan, but the military deems him an independent investigator because he had no role in the airstrike decision and is not part of special operations forces.
Among the key questions Kim will be examining are whether a team of special operations forces on the ground, the crew of the AC-130 gunship, or the commanders approving the strike violated strict “rules of engagement” that govern the use of air power in Afghanistan.
The rules set out elaborate procedures for when commanders can approve devastating firepower from the air, and are designed to prevent rash decisions that could put civilians or troops at serious risk.
The Pentagon initially said the flawed strike was called in by American special operations forces fighting in the town, but it now says targeting information came from Afghan troops on the ground.
The inquiry will look at whether those Afghan forces relayed flawed information to their American counterparts; why the U.S. air crew or officers who approved the strike were unaware of the hospital’s location; whether any Taliban forces were even near the hospital; and whether the U.S. gunship — which hammered the hospital repeatedly with its cannons over 30 minutes — could verify that the Afghan troops were under fire.
American officers have rarely suffered severe punishment when civilians have been accidentally killed in air operations, but the gravity of the incident in Kunduz will test to what degree the Pentagon is willing to uphold a principle it often cites as a bedrock of the U.S. military — accountability.
Doctors Without Borders has said the Pentagon is incapable of investigating itself and demanded an independent inquiry — a proposal that Washington has so far rejected.
The medical charity, also known as MSF by its French name, has said it provided the coordinates of the hospital to both the U.S. and Afghan governments before the air raid took place.
“It’s a very visible, well-known structure. It had been there for four years, and it only got bigger and more sophisticated over time,” Jason Cone, executive director for Doctors Without Borders in the United States, told Foreign Policy.
The hospital also had a large red-and-white flag with the charity’s logo flying from the roof, he said.
That makes the magnitude of the tragedy even more jarring to those inside and outside the military.
Before any mission, U.S. and NATO troops typically go through a rigorous intelligence review, including identifying sensitive sites to be avoided, such as mosques or clinics, current and former military officers said.
In the case of the Kunduz strike, “multiple things would have to go wrong,” said one military official familiar with operations in Afghanistan.
The step-by-step procedures established for bombing raids are designed to prevent such catastrophic errors by requiring commanders at operations centers to make the final call instead of troops caught up in the heat of a firefight, the official said.
“We have so many fail-safes,” the military official. “There are multiple rules of engagement before we shoot at any building.”
Surveillance drones typically provide live imagery of a potential target for commanding officers at operation centers in Bagram or Kabul, though U.S. officials have not said whether that was the case in Saturday’s bombing.
There are a number of links along the chain of command in Afghanistan who would likely have a say in any airstrike of this caliber, or at least would have access to videos and photographs of the fighting being relayed by U.S. aircraft flying overhead, officers said.
Several officers with key roles in that chain of command are now likely to be primary subjects of the investigation.
Among them would be Army Lt. Col. Jason Johnston, the commander of the military’s entire special operations task force in Afghanistan. That task force consists of hundreds of elite special operations forces who often work closely with Afghanistan’s special forces.
A proposed strike in an urban center requested by Afghan troops might have prompted more senior officers to weigh in. That could include Johnston’s boss, Army Maj. Gen. Sean Swindell, who oversees all U.S. and NATO special operations forces in the country.
The third officer likely to face scrutiny is U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott West, the overall commander of the air war in Afghanistan. West, based in Kabul, coordinates strikes with a major air-combat center in Qatar that deploys warplanes to the area. It’s not clear where the AC-130 involved in Saturday’s raid operated from.
The deadly 2009 strike in Kunduz province took place at a time when bombing raids were far more frequent and when Afghan forces were still in a supporting role to the NATO mission.
A German colonel in the Kunduz region requested the air raid against two fuel tankers that had been hijacked by the Taliban. There were no NATO troops near the scene, and the colonel reportedly based his request heavily on information from one Afghan informant who had claimed there would be no civilians at risk.
The trucks had become stuck in a riverbed, and the insurgents invited nearby villagers to siphon off fuel from the tankers. Several hours later, a U.S. F-15E fighter jet dropped bombs on each the tankers, generating a massive ball of flame that killed more than 100 people. The precise civilian death toll remains unclear, but estimates have ranged from 74 to more than 90, including many children.
Although the German Defense Ministry learned hours after the attack that some civilians had been killed or injured, then-Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung insisted in public statements that no civilians had been in the area at the time of the bombardment.
But media reports eventually revealed that the Defense Ministry had tried to cover up the civilian casualties.
Less than four months after the strike, the defense minister, who had subsequently become the labor minister, resigned, along with a senior Defense Ministry official, Peter Wichert, and the chief of staff of Germany’s armed forces, Gen. Wolfgang Schneiderhan.
The German military and government cleared the German officer on the ground, Col. Georg Klein, of any criminal wrongdoing in the incident. In 2010, Berlin provided payments of $5,000 to dozens of families who lost loved ones in the strike, though without stating that the government was responsible for the civilian deaths.
No U.S. officers involved in the 2009 strike faced major disciplinary action.
Photo credit: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images