The Cable

NATO Official During Kunduz Strike: ‘I’ll Do My Best, Praying for You All’

A new MSF report goes into harrowing detail about the Oct. 3 U.S. airstrike on its hospital in Kunduz.

The damaged hospital in which the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) medical charity operated is seen on October 13, 2015 following an air strike in the northern city of Kunduz. Thirty-three people are still missing days after a US air strike on an Afghan hospital, the medical charity has warned, sparking fears the death toll could rise significantly. AFP PHOTO        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
The damaged hospital in which the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) medical charity operated is seen on October 13, 2015 following an air strike in the northern city of Kunduz. Thirty-three people are still missing days after a US air strike on an Afghan hospital, the medical charity has warned, sparking fears the death toll could rise significantly. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

There were approximately 20 wounded Taliban fighters being treated at the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan, the night of the Oct. 3 U.S. airstrike on the hospital, an internal review released Thursday by the aid group said.

The attack by an American AC-130 gunship on a known medical facility has called into question the reliability of the U.S. intelligence network in Afghanistan, how well that information is being shared between headquarters and the air crews flying combat missions, and who gave the final green light to fire on the hospital. President Barack Obama has personally apologized for the botched strike and has promised a full investigation. MSF itself has called the attack a “war crime” and has called for an independent probe.

The aid group says that dozens of wounded Taliban had been treated at the hospital in the days before the airstrike, but that the militants had at all times observed a strict “no weapons” policy once on MSF grounds. Staffers placed MSF flags on the roof of the building and at the front gate, and repeatedly sent U.S., NATO, and Afghan military headquarters the GPS coordinates of their facility.

That wasn’t enough to prevent the airstrike, which had been requested by Afghan forces fighting to reclaim the city from the Taliban. The aftermath, according to the report, was horrific: “patients burned in their beds, medical staff were decapitated and lost limbs, and others were shot by the circling AC-130 gunship while fleeing the burning building.” The group said at least 30 of its staffers and patients were killed, a rise in the casualty estimate from the previously reported 22 deaths.

Relying on first-hand accounts taken from survivors of the attack, the MSF report goes into harrowing detail about what staffers and patients endured. “Some accounts mention shooting that appears to follow the movement of people on the run. MSF doctors and other medical staff were shot while running to reach safety in a different part of the compound.”

MSF has long held that it called and texted military officials in Kabul and Washington throughout the hour-long attack, but the AC-130 kept making passes and opening fire on the building, regardless. For the first time, however, the group has published some of the texts it received from a NATO military official in Kabul.

The strikes started a few minutes after 2:00 a.m., and at 2:52 a.m., after being told that at least one staffer was dead and many others unaccounted for, a reply was received by the MSF staff in Kabul from an individual at the NATO military command stating, “I’m sorry to hear that, I still do not know what happened.”

Then at 2:59 a.m. another text came in from a NATO official saying, “I’ll do my best, praying for you all.”

The commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, met for the first time with MSF staffers in Kabul on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis confirmed.

In a statement on Thursday, Davis said “we have worked closely with MSF to determine the facts” surrounding the attack, and the U.S. military continues to “work closely with MSF in identifying the victims, both those killed and wounded, so that we can conclude our investigations and proceed with follow-on actions to include condolence payments.”

Davis refused to put a timeline on when two separate investigations — one by the NATO command, and one by the U.S. military — will be wrapped up, but said that they will be made public when the work is complete. In the days following the attack, U.S. officials predicted that the investigations would be completed within a month, but that window has since come and gone.

The U.S. military has already accepted responsibility for the attack, however. Just days after the strikes, Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the hospital was “mistakenly struck,” and U.S. forces “would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.”

Several U.S. officers with key roles in the chain of command in Afghanistan are likely to be primary subjects of the investigation, Foreign Policy has previously reported. Among them would be 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, however, it is likely that any planned strike in an urban center requested by Afghan troops would likely require more senior officers to weigh in, including Johnston’s boss, Army Maj. Gen. Sean Swindell, who oversees all U.S. and NATO special operations forces in the country. Another officer close to the issue would be U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott West, the overall commander of the air war in Afghanistan. Based out of Kabul, West’s job is to coordinate strikes with a major air-combat center in Qatar that deploys warplanes to the area.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has also jumped into the fray, claiming to have information from sources in the military command in Kabul that a key piece of the American intelligence network in Afghanistan was down the night of the strikes. In an Oct. 20 letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Hunter wrote that during the attack, “the primary components of the Pentagon’s flagship Intelligence system, the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS), were not operational in Afghanistan,” meaning that it would have been more difficult for U.S. commanders in Kabul, and special operators on the ground near Kunduz, to share information quickly, or gain a full picture of what was happening.

Correction, Nov. 5, 2015: On the night of the attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz, there were approximately 20 wounded Taliban fighters in the hospital. A previous version of this story stated that there were 65 wounded Taliban fighters at the facility.

 

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

 

 

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