Numerous American service members have been suspended from duty due to misconduct that led to the Oct. 3 bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which killed 30 people, U.S. military officials said Wednesday.
A six-week investigation into the bombing placed the bulk of the blame on the crew of the AC-130 gunship that opened fire on the hospital, along with the U.S. Special Operations Forces commander overseeing the battle in Kunduz, officials said.
"Those individuals most closely associated with the incident have been suspended from their duties, pending consideration and disposition of administrative and disciplinary matters," Army Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters Wednesday.
Campbell said the pilots and U.S. commanders overseeing the operation "misidentified" the hospital as a target and "believed they were striking a different building several hundred meters away where there were reports of combatants."
The mistake was "the direct result of human error, compounded by systems and procedural failures," Campbell said.
It's unclear whether the operation was outside the bounds of the current limited mission authority assigned to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where combat operations officially ended last year. The report found that under the circumstances, the U.S. special operations commander "lacked the authority to direct the aircrew to engage the facility" that he thought was occupied by enemy combatants.
"The investigation found that some of the individuals involved did not follow the rules of engagement," said Army Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, a spokesman for Operation Resolute Support, the current title of the Afghanistan mission.
U.S. military officials declined to say how many troops were suspended and what kind of disciplinary action they may face.
The bombing came several days after the city of Kunduz fell to the Taliban, marking the insurgent group's biggest battlefield victory since the 2001 U.S. invasion. In response, a team of U.S. special operations forces deployed to Kunduz to support an Afghan army counterattack.
The AC-130 gunship targeted the hospital, the largest in northern Afghanistan, with repeated strafing runs for 29 minutes, killing patients and the doctors and staff that were treating them. An additional 37 people were wounded in the incident.
Doctors Without Borders, the group that operated the hospital, also known by its French name of Medecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, has called the attack a war crime.
Just days before the bombing, On Sept. 29, MSF sent the coordinates of its trauma center in Kunduz to multiple people within the U.S. and NATO chains of command, Campbell said.
Campbell briefed reporters in Kabul on Wednesday on the details of the report and spoke to reporters at the Pentagon via a satellite link.
The investigation suggests a series of flawed judgment calls, ignored procedures and technological failures at critical moments.
Campbell said the investigation findings included:
- The AC-130 aircraft that fired on the hospital had launched urgently in response to a report of troops under fire. As a result, the crew did not conduct a normal mission brief nor obtain "crucial mission essential related materials" that would include the "no-strike" list identifying the location of the hospital as being off limits.
- During the flight, the aircraft’s onboard electronic systems malfunctioned, resulting in a breakdown of some essential command and control capability, such as eliminating the aircraft’s ability to transmit video, and send and receive email.
- In the air over Kunduz, the aircraft conducted an evasive maneuver that forced it to move "away from its normal orbit … this degraded the accuracy of certain targeting systems which later contributed to the misidentification of the MSF trauma center," Campbell said.
- When the targeting systems malfunctioned, the AC-130 aircrew "visually located the closest, largest building" and found that it "roughly matched" the physical description of the building that U.S. SOF commanders said was the proper target. "At night, the aircrew was unable to identify any signs of the hospital's protected status," Campbell said.
- About one minute before the aircraft began firing on the hospital and despite the breakdown in some of the aircraft’s communications systems, the aircrew transmitted to their operational headquarters at Bagram Airfield the coordinates for the MSF trauma center as their target. The headquarters had access to the no-strike list, which included the hospital, but did not realize that the grid coordinates for the target matched a location on the no-strike list or that the aircrew was preparing to fire on the hospital.
- The aircrew continued repeated strikes on the hospital target despite telling investigators that they did not observe hostile activity at the MSF trauma center.
- During the 29-minute assault on the hospital, the aircraft’s targeting system began functioning correctly and identified the correct target, but "the crew remained fixated on the physical description of the facility" and disregarded the grid coordinates, Campbell said.
- Twelve minutes after the assault on the hospital began, U.S. operations forces received a call from MSF saying the hospital was under attack. But that information was not relayed to the aircrew before the AC-130 had completed its strike and departed the area.
"The personnel who requested the strike and those who executed it from the air did not undertake the appropriate measures to verify that the facility was a legitimate military target," Campbell said.
As for the disciplinary actions against troops that may follow, Campbell will handle some of those proceedings, and he forwarded some others to the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command to review and possibly take disciplinary action.
At the time of the bombing, the U.S. special operations forces team on the ground in Kunduz had been "engaged in heavy fighting for nearly five consecutive days and nights," Campbell noted.
"Fatigue and high operational tempo contributed to this tragedy," he said.
"This was a tragic mistake. U.S. forces would never intentionally strike a hospital or other protected facilities. Our deepest condolences go to all of the individuals and families that were affected by this tragic incident."
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.