Kill, Capture

Investigators Scour Secret Tapes of the Afghan Hospital Attack

While U.S. pilots carried out airstrikes that killed 22, video and audio recorders were capturing the tragedy from inside the cockpit.

10.10.15 4:15 AM ET

U.S. military investigators are focusing on classified video and audio recordings taken from the gunship that carried out a lethal attack on a hospital in Afghanistan, The Daily Beast has learned.

A U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast the recordings were key to the Pentagon’s emerging understanding of the assault in Kunduz that killed 22 people, including patients and medical personnel from Doctors Without Borders.

Among the recordings available from the AC-130 gunship involved in the attack are conversations among the gunship crew as they fired on the facility, and as they communicated with U.S. soldiers on the ground.

Earlier this week, Pentagon officials saw and heard the recordings, the official told The Daily Beast; the audio recordings were particularly illuminating. The recordings helped lead the U.S. military to conclude that the so-called rules of engagement—the guidelines for the use of force—were misapplied. Because of the ongoing investigation, the defense official—and the Pentagon’s spokespeople—refused to comment on the details of what the recordings captured.

Questions about the recordings of the attack came up this week in classified briefings on Capitol Hill, but the military did not make either the audio or video available to congressmen and senators who oversee the Pentagon. And even when a lawmaker directly requested to listen to the audio, a senior congressional aide told The Daily Beast, they were rebuffed by the Department of Defense, which cited its continuing investigation as a reason not to share it.

The hospital attack has been the subject of intense controversy—and shifting explanations—since it was launched on Oct. 3. In the initial hours after the attack, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan called the hospital “collateral damage” in a battle against the Taliban. Three days later, Army Gen. John Campbell, who is in charge of the mission of Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the U.S. “mistakenly struck” the hospital. In between, officials began reviewing the recordings of the strike, which Doctors Without Borders representatives have called evidence of a “war crime.”

President Obama, in an unusual move, personally called Doctors with Borders to apologize on behalf of the United States.

The Pentagon believes the attack on the hospital began because the U.S. thought Afghan troops were under attack from Taliban fighters. The U.S. military and would never “intentionally” strike a hospital, Campbell told Congress this week.

The U.S. military said Afghan forces were taking fire from near the hospital, leading the Afghans to ask for American air support. The U.S. on-the-ground troops required in such strikes were as far as half a mile away, the defense official told The Daily Beast, which likely helped create confusion about what the U.S. military was striking.

Afghan troops, however, appear to have been deeply familiar with the location. If so, that raises the question: Why would they call in such an attack?

Campbell implied during his Senate testimony Tuesday that the American rules of engagement were at least part of the problem.

“To prevent any future incidents of this nature, I have directed the entire force to undergo in-depth training in order to review all of our operational authorities and rules of engagement,” he told the committee.

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The U.S. military, NATO, and the Afghan government are all conducting concurrent investigations. During his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Campbell said he hoped to have the preliminary results of the U.S. military investigation completed within 30 days.

Army Brig. Gen. Richard Kim is leading the U.S. investigation but only reached the hospital site in the last 48 hours, a second defense official explained, because of instability in the northern Afghan city. Kim hopes to interview patients there, but many have fled to other parts of Afghanistan for medical care, the official said.

AC-130 gunships fly low to the ground to allow crews to make strike assessments based on what they see. The AC-130 unit involved in the Kunduz attack was linked to a Special Operations Force, a U.S. official told The Daily Beast. Special Operations Forces were operating nearby, at the airport, training the Afghan forces that came under attack.

The U.S. uses airpower in Afghanistan in one of three, broadly-defined missions: to defend U.S. troops in harm’s way; to protect key Afghan assets or positions under enemy fire; or to conduct operations as part of the U.S. counterterrorism campaign against the Taliban.

And it is that third reason that can allow for myriad, legally justified attacks, such as the Taliban attacking U.S.-trained Afghan forces in a hotly contested city.  The rules of engagement arguably can become as permissive as they are restrictive.

“They can stretch the reading of that” third point, one defense official explained to The Daily Beast. “It can be liberally interpreted.”

But any request must travel through the chain of command and receive U.S. military approval. A pre-flight brief also should have noted areas that should not be struck, including religious sites, schools—and hospitals.

Doctors Without Borders said it notified the U.S. military of its hospital’s coordinates as recently as Sept. 29, shortly after the Taliban moved into Kunduz for the first time since 2001.

The Taliban has since lost control of much of the city and moved on to other provinces. But stability in Kunduz remains tenuous.

with additional reporting by Tim Mak