The Cable

‘Human Error’: U.S. Troops Suspended Over Kunduz Hospital Strike

Investigation continues into deadly airstrike

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)

As the powerful American gunship circled over the densely packed Afghan city of Kunduz on the night of Oct. 3, the crew was flying blind, with little prior intelligence as to where potential Taliban targets were located and without access to key video or electronic communications systems, which were down for much of the mission.

From there, top U.S. military officials admitted Wednesday, mistakes followed on mistakes, culminating in the deaths of 30 civilian doctors, patients, and staff at a Doctors Without Borders hospital that the air crew mistakenly attacked instead of a nearby building, which was their actual target.

“We failed to meet our own high expectations on Oct. 3,” commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, said Wednesday from Kabul, adding that the incident was “a tragic and avoidable accident caused primarily by human error.”

Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, spokesman for the NATO command in Kabul, said members of the crew of the AC-130 gunship “did not follow the rules of engagement” in launching the 29-minute attack, and have been suspended from their duties pending possible disciplinary action.

Some of those under investigation include members of the U.S. Special Operations team on the ground in Kunduz, who occupied a position several hundred meters away from the building at the time of the strike — though they couldn’t see the building — and had been involved in heavy combat with the Taliban for five straight days.

The mistakes on Oct. 3 began even before the plane took off from base. An investigation by the U.S. military has found that the gunship launched without being briefed on “crucial mission materials, including no-strike info that would have determined the coordinates of the hospital,” Campbell said. The investigation also found that the crew relied almost entirely on a physical description of the building, as opposed to grid coordinates, which led to the strike on the wrong building.

The aircraft’s grid location system — down for part of the mission — did come back online later during the attack, but the crew ignored the system and “remained fixated on the physical description of the facility and at that point did not rely on the grid coordinate,” Campbell said, which would have revealed they were shooting at a known civilian hospital.

At one point during the attack, the crew also sent the coordinates of the building it was hitting to its headquarters at Bagram Airfield, but the staff there did not realize the location matched a “no-strike” location until the bombing runs were over.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wa.), chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a joint statement after their own conversation with Campbell, saying while “it is clear that process failures on multiple levels were involved,” the committee is content to watch the investigation play out.

Doctors Without Borders known by its French acronym MSFhas said that within minutes of the start of the airstrike, its staff in Kabul began calling NATO officials in a frantic effort to stop the assault, but officials were unable to intervene in time. The aid group has said the attack could be considered a war crime, and has demanded an independent investigation outside the U.S. military’s chain of command. But Washington and Kabul have so far rejected the request.
Photo Credit: STR/AFP/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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