- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Last month’s mistaken deadly airstrike on a hospital in Kanduz, Afghanistan, can be blamed on American forces on the ground, in the air and back at headquarters.

All made critical mistakes that killed 30 people and left the Doctors Without Borders trauma center destroyed by barrages from a special operations AC-130 gunship.

If there is principal blame, it resides with that cannon-studded aircraft — its crew and its state-of-the-art avionics. Both failed miserably on Oct. 3.

“We have learned from this terrible incident,” Army Gen. John Campbell, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said Wednesday. “This was a tragic mistake.”

Doctors Without Borders said the U.S. military was guilty of “gross negligence” and violated laws governing warfare.

Gen. Campbell released a chronology of the event filled with human errors. A double-check by either the U.S. commando leader on the ground, or the air crew or officers at a command center at Bagram Air Field, could have stopped the attack before it began.

The chain of events started Sept. 27, when a Taliban invasion surprised Afghan security forces, who fled Kunduz, north of the Afghan capital of Kabul.

Afghan and U.S. special operations troops gathered at a provincial police base and planned a counterattack. At some point the hospital, which was taking in war wounded from both sides, provided the NATO command with its GPS coordinates to ensure it would not be attacked.

On the night of Oct. 2, the Afghan forces left the base to attack Taliban positions. The American commander and his team stayed back. They had no eyes on either the hospital or a security building several hundred yards away.

The Afghans radioed the Americans the correct coordinates for the security building — not the hospital — saying they were taking fire.

The AC-130 aircraft had taken off in haste without adequate mission planning. It did not bring along the official “no-strike list” on which the hospital grid resided.

Then it suffered major malfunctions of its electronics system that prevented it from sending video or email communications to Bagram. Compounding the malfunctions, the gunship came under missile attack and was forced to move 8 miles away from its orbit, putting the plane too far away from the security building to match it to a GPS number.

When the crew programmed the grid given by the special operations commander, the plane’s system told them the site was a vacant field. Eventually the aircraft moved back to the appropriate orbit.

Then came the biggest error: The crew relied on a physical description of the target provided by a joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) on the ground with the American commander, not the GPS coordinate. That description happened to match that of the trauma center.

In the dark, the crew saw no markings; the hospital’s staff had placed its flag horizontally on the roof. The airmen also failed to see any hostile fire. But they decided to attack anyway.

“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,” Gen. Campbell said. “The report also determined that 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.”

Selecting the hospital as the target, the AC-130 crew sent its coordinates to Bagram. There, again, the deaths could have been avoided if some command center operator had compared the numbers to the no-strike list. But no one did.

“The headquarters was aware of the coordinates for the … Trauma Center and had access to the no-strike list, 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,” Gen. Campbell said.

Just one minute after it sent the grid to Bagram, the AC-130 unleashed a withering, 29-minute salvo of machine gun and cannon fire. Hospital staff reached headquarters at 2:20 a.m. But it took the command cell 17 minutes to realize the mistake, by which time the gunship had stopped firing.

The command suspended a number of the participants in the incident and is launching disciplinary procedures that could result in courts-martial.

The investigation, led by three general officers not tied to the command in Kabul, confirmed what Doctors Without Borders asserted all along: that no one in the hospital from any side was armed, and no gunfire came from the building.

The French group, known in its own language as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), said Wednesday the U.S. account left “more questions than answers.”

“It is shocking that an attack can be carried out when U.S. forces have neither eyes on a target nor access to a no-strike list, and have malfunctioning communications systems. It appears that 30 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of people are denied life-saving care in Kunduz simply because the MSF hospital was the closest large building to an open field and ‘roughly matched’ a description of an intended target. The frightening catalogue of errors outlined today illustrates gross negligence on the part of U.S. forces and violations of the rules of war,” the said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide