US General Says Kunduz Hospital Strike Was 'Avoidable' - New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan The top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, said Wednesday that several service members had been suspended from duty after an internal military investigation of the American airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz last month.Calling the airstrike a tragic mistake, General Campbell read a statement announcing the findings of the investigation, which he said concluded that avoidable human error was to blame, compounded by technical, mechanical and procedural failures. He said another contributing factor was that the Special Forces members in Kunduz had been fighting continuously for days and were fatigued.The strike, which involved repeated attacks by a Special Operations AC-130 gunship early on Oct. 3, killed 30 people, mostly patients and Doctors Without Borders staff members, and gutted the main hospital building. The aid group said the attack continued for more than an hour despite repeated calls to the military by staff members, and despite the hospitals coordinates having been repeatedly sent to the American command.General Campbell and his staff did not say how many people were being disciplined, or how. But a senior United States military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said one of those punished was the Army Special Forces commander on the ground in Kunduz during the fighting. The official would not identify the commander by name but said the officer, a captain, was relieved of his command in Afghanistan on Wednesday morning.Kunduz, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan, had been seized by the Taliban in the days before the airstrike. General Campbell said the gunships crew believed it was firing on a different building identified as a Taliban base in the city. He said that the aircrafts targeting systems had failed to deliver accurate information and that email and other electronic systems aboard the aircraft, including a video feed that would normally have sent pictures to higher-level commanders in real time, had also failed during the operation.American officials said that the Special Operations troops did not follow the rules of engagement and that the airstrike should not have taken place. After reading the statement, General Campbell left the briefing room, at his headquarters in Kabul, without taking questions.Following up, the spokesman for the American command, Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, sought to deflect a reporters suggestion that responsibility might rest higher up the chain of command. He said the actions of the aircrew and the Special Operations forces were not appropriate to the threat that they faced. And he repeatedly said the service members involved had not followed correct procedures for airstrikes or choosing targets.Asked if the militarys investigators had questioned General Campbell in the course of their inquiry, General Shoffner declined to comment. General Campbell was ultimately in charge during the attack on the hospital, but a military official in Kabul said he was in an aircraft at the time, on his way to testify before Congress on Afghanistan.I wont comment on General Campbells position, as he is reviewing some of the recommendations that have been made in his capacity as the appointing officer of the investigation, General Shoffner said.Many of General Campbells comments raised more questions than they answered.The general confirmed that Mdecins Sans Frontires, the French name of Doctors Without Borders, had succeeded in reaching the Special Forces commander to inform him of the attack about 12 minutes into the airstrike, at 2:20 a.m. But he said the strike was not called off until 2:37 a.m. after the aircrew had already stopped firing. But that timeline does not agree with accounts by the aid group and other witnesses, who said the strike went on for more than an hour.The aid group, which has called for an independent, nonmilitary international inquiry into the airstrike, was sharply critical of General Campbells remarks. The U.S. version of events presented today leaves M.S.F. with more questions than answers, said Christopher Stokes, the organizations general director. The frightening catalog of errors outlined today illustrates gross negligence on the part of U.S. forces and violations of the rules of war.Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for a criminal investigation. The Kunduz strike still warrants a criminal investigation into possible war crimes, but the Pentagon did not clarify whether recommendations made to senior commanders include possible criminal investigations, said John Sifton, the Asia policy director for Human Rights Watch. We are deeply concerned that any decision making about any possible criminal charges, if they are made, remains within the chain of command responsible for military operations in Afghanistan.In his account of the investigation report, which is said to be 3,000 pages long but has not been publicly released, General Campbell said that the targeting system on the AC-130 gunship that carried out the airstrike pointed to what proved to be an empty field. Realizing that was not correct, the crew on the gunship decided to target the Doctors Without Borders hospital as the building nearest to the coordinates that matched the description of the intended target.The investigation found that the actions of the aircrew and the Special Operations commander were not appropriate to the threats that they faced, General Shoffner said. We did not intentionally strike the hospital, and were absolutely heartbroken over what happened.Mr. Stokes expressed outrage at that account. It appears that 30 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of people are denied lifesaving care in Kunduz simply because the M.S.F. hospital was the closest large building to an open field and roughly matched a description of an intended target, he said.General Shoffner said that General Campbell had directed that American soldiers receive additional training on targeting, planning and rules of engagement.Neither the commanding general nor his spokesman made any comment on the repeated assertions of senior Afghan officials that the hospital was being used as a base by the Taliban to attack coalition forces.This was a tragic but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error, General Campbell said. The medical facility was misidentified as a target by U.S. personnel who believed they were striking a different building several hundred meters away where there were reports of combatants.