Human error led to strike on Doctors Without Borders hospital, general says

'We made a terrible mistake that resulted in unnecessary deaths,' Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner said of the October attack that killed 30 staff and patients at a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

Massoud Hossaini/Reuters
US Army Gen. John Campbell, the commander of international and US forces in Afghanistan, speaks during a news conference at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 25, 2015. The US investigation into a deadly October strike on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz concluded it was a tragic accident caused primarily by human error, Campbell said.

The US military’s airstrike of a Doctors Without Borders hospital last month was a “tragic but avoidable accident,” Gen. John Campbell, head of US forces in Afghanistan, said Wednesday, vowing that his command will learn from its “tragic mistake.”

The strafing of the hospital by an AC-130 gunship – an attack that lasted for nearly 30 minutes and resulted in the death of 30 staff and patients – was caused by “avoidable human error” and has resulted in the suspension of several US troops from their duties, he added from Kabul in a video conference with reporters. 

“The fact that we’re even doing this press conference today is unusual,” said Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, a command spokesman who joined General Campbell at the podium. He added that the US military wanted to demonstrate transparency, and to stress that it would immediately put into place new procedures to minimize the chances of such grievous errors happening again.

“We made a terrible mistake that resulted in unnecessary deaths,” Brigadier General Shoffner said. “We would never, ever do anything to harm innocent civilians.”

The investigation is “one step toward full accountability,” he added.

For starters, the hospital was misidentified by US service members, “who believed they were hitting a building several kilometers away,” Campbell said. “Those executing the strike didn’t take proper procedures to verify that it was a good target.”

This will change, he said, adding that the military will review its targeting verification procedures.

In making its attack run on the hospital, the gunship was relying on information provided by Afghan forces about a fight taking place at a nearby building. While the data that the Afghan forces provided was correct, the US Special Operations commander on the ground “lacked the authority to engage,” since that information was not verified independently by US forces. 

The aircraft instruments malfunctioned, too, and there was no video or e-mail available as the gunship arrived on target.

And so the aircrew concluded, based on the description of a Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC) on the ground that the Doctors Without Borders-run hospital was the building they should have been bombing instead, Campbell said. “Tragically, this misidentification occurred throughout the operation.”

Doctors Without Borders had done its part to notify the US military of its location and coordinates, he acknowledged. They called, too, in the middle of the airstrike, which began at 2:08 a.m. At 2:20 a.m., a Special Operations Forces officer at Bagram Airfield received a call from Doctors Without Borders. It took until 2:37 for that information to be relayed to the AC-130 gunship crew and to, as Campbell put it, “realize the fatal mistake.”

By that time, the strike was over.

The transparency of the report “is very important, and [the US military] will make some substantial changes based on this,” says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

These will likely involve “streamlining their communications” and creating “some kind of hotline” to get information to the decision makers more quickly.

“There were either bad communications from the command center and Kabul, or a layering inside the command center so that the information didn’t get out,” he says. 

In detailing some of the mistakes that led to the civilian deaths, the press conference offered a window into the high demands placed on the few remaining US troops in Afghanistan. 

It is a picture of a war half-a-world away, the longest in US history, that few Americans are able to see. It was on Sept. 27 that the city of Kunduz was attacked by the Taliban. By the 28th , most local Afghan forces withdrew, “leaving the Taliban in control of much of the city,” Campbell said. 

US Special Operations Forces were deployed “rapidly” on Sept. 29, in order to defend the Kunduz airfield from a Taliban attack. They fought “throughout the night into the early morning,” Campbell said, then moved from the airfield to the city to establish themselves in the provincial chief of police compound, to try and protect it.

During this time, the forces “repelled heavy and sustained enemy attacks” and “conducted multiple attacks” themselves. As a result, the US special operators “remained at the compound longer than anticipated to help Afghan forces.”

Just prior to the airstrike, Campbell noted, these US forces “had been engaged in heavy fighting for five consecutive days and nights.” 

As a result, Campbell said, “fatigue and a high operational tempo contributed to this tragedy.”

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