- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2016

The exoneration of 16 U.S. service members for their role in a deadly attack on a civilian hospital in Afghanistan in October highlights the perils of America’s continued involvement in the country.

The remaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan find themselves caught between increasing attacks by the Taliban while the Afghan military remains unprepared to take on the fight, and rules of engagement that limit their actions in what the White House has dubbed a “noncombat” operation.

According to the investigation by command officials, officially released by the Pentagon on Friday, the attack on the hospital in 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, rebutting accusations of a war crime made by officials from the French medical aid group Doctors Without Borders, which ran the hospital.

The air crew 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, which left 42 civilians dead and scores wounded, “had no idea” the target was a hospital, the four-star general explained.

“They were attempting to do the right thing,” he said.

But Doctors Without Borders President Meinie Nicolai said U.S. forces cannot escape any accountability for the damage inflicted on Afghan civilians and aid workers, regardless of whether the attack was intentional.

“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 Friday statement.

“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.

During Friday’s briefing, Gen. Votel defended the rules of engagement governing U.S. forces in Afghanistan but noted that the rules for America’s noncombat role versus the facts U.S. and Afghan forces face on the battlefield have created confusion within the fog of war.

“Unfortunately, we get into situations like this that are confusing. There is a lot on the ground. It’s a fast-moving situation. And we have young leaders out there that are trying to make the right decision in the heat of combat. And sometimes it comes up wrong,” Gen. Votel said.

Even with combat operations officially coming to a close, American forces find themselves repeatedly going outside the wire with their Afghan counterparts.

Congressional lawmakers took Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to task over the White House’s refusal to acknowledge that U.S. forces were still engaged in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq and Syria.

“Whenever [the White House] talks about our troops in the Middle East, they go to great lengths [to say] they will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” Sen. Daniel Sullivan, Alaska Republican, said in a pointed exchange with Mr. Carter and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.

Mr. Sullivan went on to accuse administration and Defense Department officials of going through rhetorical “somersaults” to avoid acknowledging what “the entire country knows is not correct, to say our troops are not in combat when they’re in combat,” in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The roughly 5,500 American troops in Afghanistan, along with the 3,500 to 5,000 American service members deployed in Iraq and Syria, “are in combat and I think that we need to say that clearly,” Mr. Carter said.

At the time of the hospital attack, U.S. and Afghan forces had been engaged in heavy fighting in and around Kunduz after Taliban forces briefly retook the city in October. It was the first time the Taliban had held a major city in the country since 2001.

During the ensuing battle to take back Kunduz, a U.S. special operations forces team and its Afghan counterparts called in air support on Oct. 3.

While scrambling to get the gunship into the air to respond to the call, the air crew was not properly briefed by senior U.S. commanders, according to the U.S. Central Command 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 crew 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 1,300 feet from the Doctors Without Borders hospital.

The hospital “generally matched the description of the building” American and Afghan forces on the ground had identified, although 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 neither U.S. soldiers nor their Afghan counterparts on the ground were close enough to see either the Doctors Without Borders hospital or the building that was the intended target.

“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.

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.

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