Unburying the Dead From the Pentagon’s Afghan Hospital Bombing

The Pentagon has quietly released a report on civilian casualties that it's hoping nobody will notice.

Wounded survivors of the US airstrikes on the MSF Hospital in Kunduz, receive treatment at the Italian aid organization, Emergency's hospital in Kabul on October 6, 2015.    Afghan forces called in a US air strike on a Kunduz hospital that killed 22 people, the top American commander in Afghanistan said October 5, 2015, after medical charity MSF branded the incident a war crime.  AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar        (Photo credit should read )
Wounded survivors of the US airstrikes on the MSF Hospital in Kunduz, receive treatment at the Italian aid organization, Emergency's hospital in Kabul on October 6, 2015. Afghan forces called in a US air strike on a Kunduz hospital that killed 22 people, the top American commander in Afghanistan said October 5, 2015, after medical charity MSF branded the incident a war crime. AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read )
Wounded survivors of the US airstrikes on the MSF Hospital in Kunduz, receive treatment at the Italian aid organization, Emergency's hospital in Kabul on October 6, 2015. Afghan forces called in a US air strike on a Kunduz hospital that killed 22 people, the top American commander in Afghanistan said October 5, 2015, after medical charity MSF branded the incident a war crime. AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read )

The U.S. Defense Department has a long-standing habit of announcing bad news on Fridays, or right before federal holidays, in hopes of minimizing its resonance. It’s a sorry practice designed to elude shame. And the public now has another example to consider — or, if the Pentagon has its way, to allow to pass unnoticed.

In the aftermath of the Oct. 3, 2015, airstrike against a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that killed 42 civilians, Gen. John Campbell, then-commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, pledged on the Pentagon’s behalf to promptly release the military’s internal civilian casualty (CIVCAS) investigative report. On April 29, five months and four days later, it finally did so.

The report is actually six PDF files and consists of 726 redacted pages of summary, recommendation, and interviews with all of the involved U.S. service members. It will take weeks to fully digest the findings of the report, which was led by highly respected Army Maj. Gen. William Hickman. Moreover, few civilians will be able to penetrate the military jargon, acronyms, doctrine, and vernacular to begin to understand what happened and who exactly was responsible.

The U.S. Defense Department has a long-standing habit of announcing bad news on Fridays, or right before federal holidays, in hopes of minimizing its resonance. It’s a sorry practice designed to elude shame. And the public now has another example to consider — or, if the Pentagon has its way, to allow to pass unnoticed.

In the aftermath of the Oct. 3, 2015, airstrike against a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that killed 42 civilians, Gen. John Campbell, then-commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, pledged on the Pentagon’s behalf to promptly release the military’s internal civilian casualty (CIVCAS) investigative report. On April 29, five months and four days later, it finally did so.

The report is actually six PDF files and consists of 726 redacted pages of summary, recommendation, and interviews with all of the involved U.S. service members. It will take weeks to fully digest the findings of the report, which was led by highly respected Army Maj. Gen. William Hickman. Moreover, few civilians will be able to penetrate the military jargon, acronyms, doctrine, and vernacular to begin to understand what happened and who exactly was responsible.

However, for those interested, you can read an abridged version of the situational background, specific findings, and answers to 11 framing questions, of just 80 pages (starting on page 16 of this PDF file). Unfortunately, the two pages of recommendation that are intended to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again have been fully redacted.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, in announcing the release of the report, revealed that 12 of 16 military personnel involved in the incident would receive nonjudicial punishments, specifically, “removal from command, letters of reprimand, formal counseling, and extensive retraining.” He emphasized that the incident was not a war crime because the killing of civilians was an unintentional act and that the U.S. service members “were trying to do the right thing.” He added, “There was no intention on any of their parts to take a shortcut or to violate any rules that were laid out for them.… Unfortunately, they made a wrong judgment.” When asked what lessons were learned or changes needed to be made, Votel declared: “The procedures are good. What we did learn from this is the significant importance of clear communication between the ground and the air.”

A cursory reading of the report provides a few insights into the tragedy. The attack against the MSF facility was conducted by an AC-130 gunship firing 211 rounds of munitions (though redacted, an AC-130 fires 25 mm, 40 mm, and 105 mm rounds) for a period of 30 minutes and eight seconds. Twelve minutes into the attack, the MSF country representative called someone in the Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) on their cell phone to inform them the organization’s trauma center was being bombed. This information was then relayed to the joint operations center (JOC) overseeing the mission, but the attacks continued while the JOC contacted the ground forces commander to understand why exactly the facility was being bombed. As one JOC official notes, “immediately calling for a cease-fire for a situation we have no SA [situational awareness] on could put the ground force at risk.” Eventually, the JOC fully comprehends the situation, and a cease-fire order is given. The unknown SOTF officer texts the MSF country representative, “I’m sorry to hear that. I still don’t know what happened.”

Votel also revealed that the U.S. military has agreed to pay for a new MSF facility and has provided condolence payments to the families for 30 civilians who were killed and 37 who were injured. Relatives of the dead receive $6,000 and the wounded, $3,000. This is slightly more than past payments. According to reporting by the Intercept, between 2011 and 2013, the U.S. military made 953 condolence payments totaling $2.7 million, an average of $3,426 per death and $1,557 per injured.

In thinking about collateral damage in the Afghanistan war, there are two basic points that should frame the discussion. First, since the United Nations started collecting data in 2007, roughly three-quarters of all Afghan civilians who have died during the war were killed by the Taliban. Consisting primarily of IED explosions and assassinations of tribal elders and civilian workers, these attacks demonstrate that the Taliban will fully and consistently target civilians as part of their military strategy.

Second, while the Kunduz tragedy has received global attention, nearly 1,800 Afghan civilians have been killed by U.S. airstrikes — again just since 2007 — according to United Nations reports. The redacted report that Centcom released Friday was merely the second such CIVCAS investigative report made available to the public. (Moreover, only two CIVCAS reports have been released regarding airstrikes against the Islamic State, and Centcom officials have warned that there will be no future releases.)

Votel noted Friday, “We are committed to learning from the mistakes that were made and will work hard to train and put systems in place to reduce the risk of such an accident occurring again in the future.” If he is sincere, he should authorize the publication of all investigative reports into civilian casualty incidents that occur under his command. If, instead, he maintains his silence, that itself will speak volumes about his commitment to keeping civilians safe.

Photo credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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