The 16 U.S. service members involved in a deadly attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan last October will not face war crime charges or any further disciplinary actions, the head of U.S. Central Command said Friday.
The investigation by command officials into the attack on the hospital in northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz, 200 miles north of Kabul, “was caused by a combination of human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures,” Gen. Joseph Votel told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon.
“The fact that this was an unintentional action takes it out of the realm of a war crime,” Gen. Votel said. Officials from Doctors Without Borders have claimed the attack, which left 42 civilians dead and scores wounded, was tantamount to a war crime by U.S. forces.
The aircrew of the AC-130U Spectre gunship that carried out the attack, and the U.S. special operations forces on the ground who called in the strike, “had no idea” the target was a hospital, the four-star general explained.
“They were attempting to do the right thing,” he added.
Whether or not the attack was unintentional, U.S. forces cannot be held unaccountable for damage inflicted on Afghan civilians and aid workers at the hospital, Doctors Without Borders President Meinie 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,” Ms. Nicolai said in a statement Friday.
“With multinational coalitions fighting with different rules of engagement across a wide spectrum of wars today, whether in Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen, armed groups cannot escape their responsibilities on the battlefield simply by ruling out the intent to attack a protected structure such as a hospital,” she added.
U.S. and Afghan forces had been involved in heavy combat in and around Kunduz when a U.S. special operations forces team and their Afghan counterparts called in for air support on Oct. 3, 2015.
In scrambling to get the gunship in the air to respond to the call, the aircrew were not properly briefed by senior U.S commanders before taking off, according to the U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, report.
In particular, the gunship left for its mission before obtaining a list of “no-strike” locations in the area. The Doctors Without Borders hospital was on that list.
Once airborne, the aircrew lost communication with the special operations team after taking fire while en route to the target site. Despite the lack of communications, the gunship’s crew attempted to identify the target — a building 400 meters from the Doctors Without Borders hospital.
The hospital “generally matched the description of the building” American and Afghan forces on the ground had identified, despite the fact no gunfire was coming from the hospital, Gen. Votel said.
The gunship reportedly made numerous attack runs over the hospital, strafing the building for nearly a half-hour until hospital staff were able to contact the regional NATO headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif to stop the attack.
During Friday’s briefing, Gen. Votel admitted that U.S. soldiers and their Afghan counterparts on the ground were too far away to see either the Doctors Without Borders hospital or the building that was the intended target during the attack.
“This … was an extreme situation and I can’t sit here and tell you we won’t have more of those in the future” as U.S. and NATO forces continue to withdraw troops from the country, Gen. Votel said Friday.
U.S. and allied forces officially called an end to combat operations in Afghanistan, leaving the bulk of the fighting to the country’s national security forces.
Aside from counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and an emerging Islamic State presence in the eastern part of the country, American forces in Afghanistan are primarily advising and training the Afghan National Security Forces.