This story that originally appeared in October 2015 is updated in light of the air strike on an Aleppo, Syria, hospital Thursday and the pending announcement of disciplinary action against U.S. military for the October 2015 air strike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
From a press briefing by Centcom Commander, Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, provided by DoD:
Communications and equipment failures and human error compounded by the stress of combat contributed to the mistaken airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders trauma facility in Kunduz City, Afghanistan, last October, the commander of U.S. Central Command said here today.
Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel told Pentagon reporters that 16 service members were disciplined because of the tragic attack by an AC-130 aircraft that led to the deaths of 42 people.
Votel again apologized for the incident and said the command will do all it can to learn from the incident.
The general stressed that none of the personnel involved in the attack knew they were firing on a hospital. “The intended target was an insurgent-controlled site which was approximately 400 meters from the Doctors Without Borders Trauma Center,” the general said. “The investigation found that an AC-130 gunship air crew in support of a U.S. [Army] Special Forces element that was supporting an Afghan partner ground force misidentified and struck the Doctors Without Borders Trauma Center.”
Votel put the mistaken attack in context. U.S. special operations personnel and their Afghan partners on the ground in Kunduz had been engaged in intense fighting for several consecutive days and nights and had repelled heavy and sustained enemy attacks, he said.
“The ground force was fatigued from days of fighting, still engaged with an aggressive enemy, and running low on supplies,” the general said. “In response to this urgent tactical situation, the AC-130 aircraft and crew launched from the base 69 minutes earlier than originally planned.”
The urgent situation meant the aircrew did not have time to receive all pertinent information, to include identification of no-strike areas such as the hospital. The aircraft’s satellite radio failed en route to Kunduz and the aircrew could not receive the no-strike information once in flight.
“Shortly after arriving on the scene, the aircraft was fired on by a surface-to-air missile and subsequently moved several miles away from the city center,” Votel said. “From this distance, the aircrew received the grid coordinates of a Taliban-controlled building.”
When they attempted to plot the coordinates of the enemy building, he said, the system directed them to an open field, which was obviously not the correct location. “The aircrew attempted to find the intended target in the nearby area, but instead, they found the Doctors Without Borders trauma center that generally matched the physical description of the building relayed over the radio by the ground force,” the general said.
The aircrew mistakenly believed that the trauma center was the Taliban-controlled building, which was actually about one-quarter mile away, Votel said. “The investigation found that throughout the engagement that followed, the ground force commander and the aircrew mistakenly believed that the aircrew and aircraft was firing on the intended target,” the general said.
The general emphasized that the trauma center was a protected facility and was on a no-strike list. “Our forces did not receive fire from the trauma center during the incident, nor did the investigation find that insurgents were using it as a base for operations,” he said.
The investigation concluded that certain personnel failed to comply with the rules of engagement in the law of armed conflict, but this did not rise to the level of war crime, the general said. “The label ‘war crimes’ is typically reserved for intentional acts — intentional targeting [of] civilians or intentionally targeting protected objects or locations,” he said.
Votel said the 16 service members — including a general officer — received appropriate administrative or disciplinary action, including suspension and removal from command, letters of reprimand, formal counseling and extensive retraining.
“In light of the report’s conclusion that the errors committed were unintentional, and after considering other mitigating factors, such as the intense combat situation and equipment failures that affected the mission, from a senior commander’s perspective, the measures taken against these individuals were appropriate to address the errors they made,” he said.
Statement by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on the Kunduz Investigation Report:
After a thorough and transparent investigation, U.S. Central Command released today the final report on the tragedy that resulted from a mistaken attack on a Doctors Without Borders field hospital in Afghanistan last October. I want to once again express my deep condolences and regret for the loss of innocent life.
In light of the report’s finding, I support the actions taken by General John Campbell and General Joseph Votel, and I want to thank them for the careful attention they devoted to their reviews of the facts. I also want to thank General John Nicholson, our new Commander in Afghanistan, who recently traveled to Kunduz to express his condolences and pledge the United States’ full support to helping Doctors Without Borders rebuild a hospital there should they so choose.
The U.S. military takes the greatest care in our operations to prevent the loss of innocent life. When we make mistakes we must own up to them and hold individuals accountable as necessary. Learning from the past and applying that knowledge to improve how we operate in the future is also a core value of the Department of Defense. That is why, after consulting with Chairman Dunford, I am directing the Combatant Commanders and Service Chiefs to take a number of specific actions to improve our Joint Force and mitigate the potential for similar incidents in the future. This report provides important and painful lessons, and as I have directed senior leaders across the Department, we will now act upon them.
The day after an airstrike killed at least 14 people and injured many more at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria, the Los Angeles Times is reporting that, on Friday, the Pentagon will announce that it has disciplined 16 service members — including a two-star general, the crew of an Air Force AC-130 attack aircraft, and Army special forces personnel — for the U.S. attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last October.
The tragic U.S. strike, described and updated in an October 2015 post, below, killed 42 people, including 14 medical staff and 24 patients.
A redacted copy of the results of the six-month investigation into the airstrike will be released Friday along with the announcement of the punishments by Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of U.S. Central Command. The LA Times adds, “No names will be released because all those disciplined are still deployed overseas.”
On the Aleppo hospital strike yesterday, the LA Times reports that the hospital, which Doctors Without Borders supports, “was reduced to rubble…”
The nationality of the warplane that launched the strike remained unclear. Both the Syrian government and its ally Russia have conducted airstrikes on rebel-held areas in recent days.
For nearly a week there have been an average of 15 strikes a day in Aleppo,” Osama Teljo, a member of the opposition’s Aleppo city council, said in an interview via social media.
A military source quoted by Syrian state media insisted “there was no truth” to accusations that the Syrian air force had targeted the hospital, and said that rebel shelling of government-controlled neighborhoods of the city on Thursday had killed and wounded dozens.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense also denied responsibility for the strike, saying that its planes had not conducted any sorties over Aleppo in the last few days.
Original story and updates
Statement from Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook on Kunduz Condolence Payments
The Department of Defense believes it is important to address the consequences of the tragic incident at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. One step the Department can take is to make condolence payments to civilian non-combatants injured and the families of civilian non-combatants killed as a result of U.S. military operations. Under the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program (CERP), U.S. Forces-Afghanistan has the authority to make condolence payments and payments toward repair of the hospital. USFOR-A will work with those affected to determine appropriate payments. If necessary and appropriate, the administration will seek additional authority from the Congress.
President Obama has apologized to Doctors Without Borders for the airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz.
“This morning from the Oval Office, President Obama spoke by telephone with Doctors Without Borders International President Dr. Joanne Liu, to apologize and express his condolences for the MSF staff and patients who were killed and injured when a US military airstrike mistakenly struck an MSF field hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan over the weekend,” White House Press Secretary Earnest said in a White House briefing.
“When we make a mistake, we’re honest about it, we own up to it, we apologize where necessary as the president did in this case,” Earnest added. “We implement the kinds of changes that make it less likely that those kinds of mistakes will occur in the future,” according to ABC News.
Calling the U.S airstrike on its hospital in Kunduz an “attack on the Geneva Conventions,” Doctors Without Borders — or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) — is calling for an independent investigation on the deadly bombing.
The investigation would be carried out by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, a commission that has been in existence since 1991 but has not been called upon to-date.
According to the Washington Post,
The aid group, also known also as Medecins Sans Frontieres , or MSF, said the proposed commission would gather evidence from the United States, NATO and Afghanistan. After that, the charity would decide whether to seek criminal charges for loss of life and damage.
“If we let this go, we are basically giving a blank check to any countries at war,” MSF International President Joanne Liu told reporters in Geneva. But she noted there was no commitment yet on official cooperation with an independent investigation.
According to CNN, “It requires a request by one of the 76 nations that have signed on to it for it to begin its work. Its job is to investigate whether international humanitarian law has been violated.”
Doctors Without Borders — also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF — has said it believes the bombing was a war crime.
“Governments up to now have been too polite or afraid to set a precedent,” Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, said Wednesday. “The tool exists, and it is time it is activated.
In what the New York Times calls “as direct…as any official has been to date,” the American commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, in testimony today before the Senate Armed Services Committee said, “A hospital was mistakenly struck.”
Referring to the airstrike against a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, General Campbell “took responsibility for the sustained bombardment of the medical facility, which he said took place in response to an Afghan call for help,” according to the Times and said the strike was the result of “a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command.”
While offering few details, General Campbell said that the military had received a request for air support from Afghan troops trying to retake Kunduz from the Taliban. “Even though the Afghans request that support, it still has to go through a rigorous U.S. procedure,” the Times quotes the general.
The incident in Kunduz, as well as the faltering attempt by Afghan forces to recapture the city, has renewed questions about the shape and scope of the American mission in Afghanistan. Most of the roughly 10,000 troops American troops now there are focused on training and advising Afghan troops, and the White House placed broad limits on when and where the Americans could use force after the American combat mission ended last year.
At the same time, it has given General Campbell a wide amount of discretion to do what he deems necessary to aid Afghan troops. For the most part, that has meant using air power.
But the fighting in Kunduz over the past 10 days has illustrated the limits of air power, and offered a tragic reminder of the danger airstrikes pose to civilians, who have been repeatedly killed by American aerial bombardment since the outset of the war 14 years ago.
American officials have said they were reluctant to use air power to stop the Taliban from seizing Kunduz on Sept. 28 because they feared the possibility of killing civilians. But with forces struggling to retake the city, American troops responded to a call for help on Saturday by dispatching an AC-130 gunship, a powerful and precise attack aircraft.
General Campbell said on Tuesday that the gunship had been in communication with American advisers on the ground in Kunduz. But he did not say whether anyone involved in the strike realized they were targeting a hospital, or if the Americans could even see the intended target or were relying on Afghan forces to identify the building they wanted hit.
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Lead photo: Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, briefs the media on the investigation into an Oct. 3, 2015 airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, during a news conference at the Pentagon, April 29, 2016. DoD photo by Army Sgt. First Class Clydell Kinchen
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.