A harrowing report released by the U.S. military on Friday explains how a perfect storm of human and mechanical errors led to an attack on a Doctors with Borders hospital in northern Afghanistan, killing 42 innocents and raising questions about military tactics in America’s longest war.
Among the military’s conclusions: Such a mistake could happen again.
The redacted report on last October’s airstrike, by a U.S. AC-130 gunship on the hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz, reveals a U.S. military that is far more engaged in combat than officials have said. It also demonstrates how U.S. forces, lacking sufficient resources and feeling the strain of years of combat, are taking queues from Afghan forces that aren’t up to the task of fighting quickly evolving urban warfare, all while protecting civilians.
The gunship fired on a target even though it was not sure what it was, the report found. U.S. Special Forces had called for the strike, even though they couldn’t see what was being hit. Afghan forces accompanied by U.S. advisers had said they came under attack from Taliban fighters earlier, but the report found no evidence to support their claim. And U.S. commanders, who have the final say on when to attack, signed off on the mistaken strike.
But briefing reporters, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the new commander of U.S. Central Command, seemed to blame everyone and no one at the same time for the mishap.
“The investigation found that the tragic incident resulted from a combination of unintentional human errors and equipment failures, and that none of the personnel knew they were striking a medical facility,” Votel said, adding later: “This was an extreme situation.”
But officials conceded that the circumstances that led to the attack could be repeated. Of particular concern is that while U.S. troops are trying to advise a largely inexperienced Afghan military, more authority is being handed over to those forces, who aren’t ready to take control of the security of their country.
Votel said he could not rule out that such an attack couldn’t happen again, even as he said the U.S. is reviewing its tactics to minimize civilian casualties.
“I can’t sit here and tell you we won’t have more of those in the future, but—but this was an extreme situation that we were dealing with, in an area where we did not have a normal presence of American [Special Operations] forces,” he said.
The Taliban was resurgent in the northern city of Kunduz in the days leading up to the attack on the hospital, putting increased pressure on U.S. forces to support their Afghan counterparts. On the night of the airstrike, the aircraft crew was on its fourth battle in four days and was dealing with “fatigue and high operational tempo,” Votel said.
On Oct. 3, Afghan Special Forces, accompanied by their U.S. counterparts, said they came under attack from a building they claimed was a prison with Taliban fighters inside, leading the U.S. to deploy the gunship.
But U.S. ground forces gave the aircrew the wrong coordinates; it turned out to be a field. So the aircrew tried to find the building that matched the description they’d received, which they repeatedly described as the T-shaped building.
According to transcripts, a member of the AC-130 crew could be heard saying, “looking to strike the large T-shaped building in the center of the compound ensuring we are clear…”
But during the conversation between the gunship crew and those on the ground, the description the ground forces provided didn’t exactly match what the aircrew saw from its vantage point using video cameras. Audio and video recordings proved key to determining the sequence of events that led to the erroneous strike, as the Daily Beast first reported.
“And you’ve already confirmed that this prison complex is hostile,” a member of the gunship crew states.
“Yeah, so I don’t want to tell you how to do your job but….” someone on the ground responds.
“Only slightly confusing,” the navigator responds.
As it turns out, the gunship was getting ready to fire on the Doctors without Borders facility, while the purported Taliban building was 400 meters away. The U.S. Special Forces, who were obliged to order airstrikes only on sites they could see, violated their rules of engagement, the report found. Those forces couldn’t see either building—the Taliban controlled prison that was the intended target or the hospital.
U.S. forces asked for the strike for what they believed was their own protection, Votel said.
In 68 minutes, the U.S. military fired 211 rounds at the hospital. About 10 minutes into the assault, Doctors without Borders called a U.S. military command center and said it was under assault. The strike continued for 8 minutes even after word eventually reached the AC-130 that there might be problem, but Votel said the air crew didn’t know they were attacking a hospital. According to the report, no one ordered the gunship crew to cease fire.
Votel said there was no fire coming from the hospital, but that alone would not lead a crew to stop firing as they often are ordered to fire on buildings even if they are not seeing attacks emerging from a target site.
The AC-130 crew “never positively identified a hostile act originating from the [Doctors with Borders] Trauma Center, nor did it positively identify a hostile act being committed against either USSF [U.S. Special Forces] … or against [Afghan forces],” the report concluded. “ And no consideration was given for the potential for civilians in the compound.”
In all, 16 people, including a two-star general were punished but none were court martialed, as the Daily Beast first reported.
Some military personnel received letters of reprimand, while others received another form of administrative discipline and still others were required to undergo counseling or get new training. Five of the 16 involved in the attack were ordered out of Afghanistan, but Votel would not name any service member involved or their rank.
Observers said that accident was evidence of a U.S. military that has been stretched to its limits and is bound to make mistakes.
Chris Harmer, a naval analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, told the Daily Beast that the gunship crew likely knew there was no other aircraft to replace them.
“They chose to stay in the fight and support their fellow Americans on deck,” Harmer said. “The aircrew made a mistake, but theirs was a tactical error. The strategic failure is one of policy, a policy that tries to fight an open ended engagement without sufficient resources.”
Votel said the mistake was not a war crime because it was not intentional. With so many at fault, according to the report, it would be difficult to determine who should be subject to military trial. That, defense officials said privately, may have been the point of spreading so much blame around.
The AC-130 gunship aircrew has not flown since the attack, Votel said, because the Air Force is reviewing their ability to fly.
In a statement, Doctors with Borders said Votel briefed them for two hours Thursday about the report, and that it “will take the time necessary to examine the U.S. report, and to determine whether or not the U.S. account answers the many questions that remain outstanding seven months after the attack.”
The U.S. said it paid out condolence payments to more than 170 people—giving $3,000 for each person injured and $6,000 for those killed. U.S. Central Command, however, could not give a total figure of payment. In addition, the military said it approved $5.7 million to build a new hospital in Kunduz. How and when that hospital would be built was not immediately clear, Central Command officials said.