Pentagon officials are disciplining a dozen members of the military for an airstrike on a hospital in Afghanistan that killed , but stressed today that they found no war crime was committed.
The Oct. 3, 2015, attack on the Kunduz trauma hospital killed 42, including 14 staff of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières.
Gen. Joseph Votel of U.S. Central Command told reporters at the Pentagon this morning that military officials “are committed to learning from this tragedy and minimizing the risk of civilian casualties during future combat operations.”
The investigation into the incident was led by Gen. John Campbell, who led the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan and will be retiring May 1.
Votel said the “painstaking” investigation concluded that “the personnel involved did not know they were striking a medical facility.”
“The intended target was an insurgent-controlled site which was approximately 400 meters from the Doctors Without Borders Trauma Center. The investigation found that an AC-130 gunship air crew in support of a U.S. Special Forces element that was supporting an Afghan partner ground force misidentified and struck the Doctors Without Borders Trauma Center,” the general said.
“The investigation determined that all members of both the ground force and the AC-130 air crew were unaware that the aircraft was firing on a medical facility throughout the engagement. The investigation ultimately concluded that this tragic incident was caused by a combination of human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures.”
As the DoD stressed directly after the attack, Votel noted that “leading up to this incident, U.S. Special Operations forces and their Afghan special operations partners had been engaged in intense fighting for several consecutive days and nights in Kunduz, and had repelled heavy and sustained enemy attacks.”
In addition, he said, the “physical description” of the targeted Taliban building relayed over the radio by the ground force “generally matched” the hospital.
“I want to emphasize 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,” Votel said. “Some insurgents were treated at the Trauma Center, but hospitals and patients are protected on the battlefield. The Trauma Center was a protected facility, but it was misidentified during this engagement.”
“The investigation concluded that certain personnel failed to comply with the rules of engagement in the law of armed conflict” — not amounting to a war crime, he stressed, as “the label ‘war crimes’ is typically reserved for intentional acts — intentional targeting civilians or intentionally targeting protected objects or locations.”
Sixteen U.S. service members were recommended for disciplinary action; Campbell found that 12 of those, including a general officer, warranted actions including “suspension and removal from command, letters of reprimand, formal counseling and extensive retraining.”
The flight crew was “referred to a U.S. Air Force flight evaluation board to assess their suitability for future flight duties.”
The DoD is not releasing the names of the service members involved; “some of them remain assigned to overseas, sensitive, or routinely deployable units,” Votel said.
“Aircraft systems are now preloaded with key information, including the no-strike list database, to minimize the reliance on post-launch communications,” he said. Doctors Without Borders also gets a direct line to command centers now.
The Pentagon is spending $5.7 million to build a Kunduz medical center to replace the demolished hospital.
“We are deeply saddened that this tragedy occurred and again offer our sincerest condolences to all of those who were affected,” Votel said. “We are committed to learning from the mistakes that were made and will work hard to train and put systems in place that reduce the risk of such an accident occurring again in the future.”
Meinie Nicolai, president of Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement that “today’s briefing amounts to an admission of an uncontrolled military operation in a densely populated urban area, during which U.S. forces failed to follow the basic laws of war.”
“It is incomprehensible that, under the circumstances described by the U.S., the attack was not called off,” Nicolai said. “The threshold that must be crossed for this deadly incident to amount to a grave breach of international humanitarian law is not whether it was intentional or not.”
Doctors Without Borders will not be returning to work in Kunduz “without first having strong and unambiguous assurances from all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan that this will not happen again.”
“We need explicit agreement from all parties to the conflict, including the Afghan authorities and the U.S. military, that there will be no military interference or use of force against MSF medical facilities, personnel, patients and ambulances,” Nicolai said. “Equally, we must be assured that MSF staff can safely provide medical care based solely on medical needs, without discrimination, and regardless of their religious, political or military affiliations. Every day that passes without securing these assurances adds to the death toll from the attack, given the loss of lifesaving medical services to people in the region.”
In elaborating on why the “wrong judgment” that led to the hospital strike was not found to be a war crime, Votel noted that shortly after arriving over Kunduz the crew “was engaged by a surface-to-air missile.”
“That’s a very significant thing. That does not happen very often in Afghanistan. And so they took the appropriate measures; got off-station, and it just so happens that the coordinates for this location were passed while they were offset. Due to some kind of technical aspect of the system, it flew to a location that was obviously not the right one. And they went through the process of communicating between air and ground to do their best to identify where the location was,” the general said.
“They ultimately arrived at the wrong — the wrong location. And so, in my evaluation of that, and as I talked to each of these individuals that were involved, their intention was true. They were absolutely trying to do the right thing; they were trying to support our Afghan partners; there was no intention on any of their parts to take a short cut, or to violate any rules that were laid out for them. And they were attempting to do the right thing.”
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he’s directing 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” as a result of the report.
“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,” Carter said. “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.”