Deadly ‘Mistake’

11.04.15 1:16 AM ET

Pentagon MIA on Afghan Doctors Without Borders Hospital Attack

So much for revealing details of its October airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders clinic—the U.S. military was silent as a deadline passed Tuesday amid calls for an independent probe.

When the U.S. military fired on a hospital in Afghanistan last month, the Pentagon promised to reveal details about the disastrous airstrike within 30 days.

That promise has not been kept. And according to Doctors Without Borders, the U.S. military has stonewalled attempts for an independent investigation of the incident. 

The intransigence is particularly baffling because, in the days after the attack, which left at least 23 people dead, senior military and White House officials had enough information to say publicly the U.S. had made a “mistake” by firing on the hospital.

Promises for a full public accounting were equally swift in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 3 attack in the northern city of Kunduz. Army Gen. John Campbell, the commander of the war in Afghanistan, announced that the U.S. military planned to release its initial findings within 30 days. On Tuesday, the deadline came and went, and defense officials had no word on when the findings would be forthcoming.

Also yet to be released is an initial report from a so-called combat assessment team, which is supposed to determine whether the military believes there were any civilian casualties during an operation. Officials had previously said such a report could be released within 72 hours of the attack.

At the same time, Doctors Without Borders said the U.S. military has not signed off on its request for an independent investigation. According to the organization, as of Oct. 23, the strike killed at least 13 staffers and 10 patients. Another 10 bodies have yet to be identified, the group said, and another 27 staffers were injured.

But while the Pentagon is staying mum on just what happened at the hospital, privately, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge.

Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast the military’s own investigation is focused on a series of intelligence failures by military personnel that led to the gunners unwittingly firing on the hospital.

A military service member currently serving with Special Forces in Afghanistan has told a member of Congress that personnel at the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, which oversees airstrikes in the country, didn’t know the building was a hospital. He also alleged that for months, the task force lacked the proper intelligence to locate and avoid other civilian targets in the country.

Another Special Forces member who contacted the member of Congress, Rep. Duncan Hunter, corroborated that allegation and added that even since the strike, the Army still lacks the proper intelligence to locate civilian targets and avoid killing innocent people.

Separately, a Defense Department official told The Daily Beast that senior officers at the task force’s headquarters, located at Bagram Airfield, are coming under particular scrutiny for their role in approving the strike.

“I would be surprised if this didn’t lead to court-martial,” the defense official said.

U.S. officials have already examined audio and video recordings from the gunship, and appear to have a general sense of a communication failure that contributed to the attack.

Another official privately told The Daily Beast that failures with the Army’s Distributed Common Ground System-Army, a multibillion-dollar intelligence computer system that is supposed to locate civilian targets, contributed to confusion about the true nature of the target.

One of the military whistleblowers has told Hunter, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a frequent critic of the intelligence system, that the system was offline during the airstrike and well before it. Specifically, the service member said a key component known as the cloud, which is responsible for helping to integrate and distribute large amounts of intelligence, has “never been available to the Army at large” or to the personnel at the joint task force facility at Bagram.

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(The Associated Press previously reported that the system, which has a long history of failures and is also known by the acronym “DCGS-A,” was not operating on the day of the strike. But the new allegation that it has been inoperable for much longer raises questions about whether the military has mistakenly conducted strikes on civilian targets in the past or could do so again.)

Hunter has encouraged military officials to make more use of a competing intelligence system, made by the software company Palantir. The rivalry between that company’s technology and the Army’s program is long and bitter. But this is the first known instance in which military personnel are expressly arguing that DCGS-A’s shortcomings played a role in the loss of life.

Investigators are also looking at what personnel on the ground near the hospital at the time of the strike knew, and what they may have verbally relayed up the chain of command.

U.S. rules of engagement don’t allow the United States to conduct strikes on Taliban targets if they are using a hospital, school, or mosque as a shield. It remains unclear whether personnel on the ground near the hospital believed Taliban were holed up there.

Tim Shenk, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders, told The Daily Beast that “there were no armed Taliban at the hospital, and the hospital was in control of the MSF,” the French acronym for Doctors Without Borders.

In the minutes leading up to the attack, hospital officials, seeing the gunship above, set off a series of calls to defense officials in both Washington and Kabul to signal that the U.S. military was about to strike a hospital, one of the defense officials told The Daily Beast.

“Our staff was calling contacts in Kabul and Washington to say it was under attack, and the attack continued for 30 minutes. It is not clear our calls stopped the attack,” Shenk said.

Whether those messages were relayed to the task force still isn’t clear. But had they been, it’s possible that despite not knowing from their intelligence that the site was a hospital, military personnel could have figured out they were attacking a civilian target and ordered the gunship to cease fire.

The Army has touted the Distributed Common Ground System as being able to prevent attacks just like the one on the hospital in Kunduz. In a 2012 application for an award from a technology trade magazine, the Army boasted of the system’s ability to predict “possible collateral damage from military operations.”

The Army attributed life-saving powers to the system, claiming it could help spot threats like roadside bombs and avoid potential mistakes in combat, “sparing U.S. soldiers' lives and promising a better future for the Afghan people.”

The system “has done its job best when bad things don’t happen,” the Army said.