Several times in the hours leading up to the disastrous U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, American military operators came tantalizingly close to making the right decision that could have averted the deaths of 42 patients and staff.
But each time, haste or a broken communication system or a crew member’s failure to follow through with conviction brought the AC-130U “Spooky” gunship’s crosshairs back to the Doctors Without Borders hospital instead of the intended Taliban-infested building 480 yards away.
These botched decision points include: not incorporating a no-strike list into the battle plan to retake Kunduz, north of Kabul; backing off from an option not to strike the building, instead hitting the perceived enemy walking outside; and ignoring an onboard calibration that located the right target.
Besides the missed chances for a correct strike, the overall mission had all the elements for a horrendous accident in the “fog of war,” according to a Washington Times review of U.S. Central Command’s hundreds of pages of investigative files.
For one, sleep-deprived Army Green Berets had been in combat for more than 70 hours as the soldiers worked with an Afghan force trying to take back the city from a snap Taliban invasion. The Afghan army was supposed to relieve the fatigued Special Forces warriors before the strike but never showed up.
The Army’s joint terminal attack controller, who mistakenly directed the AC-130 to shoot up the trauma center, was on his first mission. His radioed messages to the air crew used improper terminology, and his description of the compound was “vague,” the investigation found.
Compounding the controller’s rookie status, the AC-130 crew was inexperienced and had only a marginal training record when, at 2:08 a.m. on Oct. 3, the Special Forces unleashed 211 rounds of the plane’s devastating tandem of Gatling gun and cannon fire.
The tragedy’s official cause boiled down to this: The Afghans gave the joint terminal attack controller the correct global positioning system grid for the intended target, the National Directorate of Security. Relayed to the AC-130, the grid took the plane’s sensors to an open field. It was evading a missile launch and was not at the correct angle to process the grid.
To correct this failure, the AC-130 crew tried to find the compound visually and fixed on the hospital, which had similar features such as a T-shaped central building. The joint terminal attack controller, who had never viewed the target, confirmed by radio that the air crew was looking at the National Directorate. A Green Beret major then authorized the strike.
Even before this string of errors, which violated the U.S. command’s rules of engagement, the tragedy could have been avoided at crucial points, The Times examination shows:
• The Green Berets and Special Operations Joint Task Force put together a concept of operations for retaking Kunduz. The command had multiple data points for downloading into the plan a “no-strike list,” which included the hospital. But no one took the time to incorporate the list into the concept of operations so that everyone would know what not to hit.
The concept of operations, absent the no-strike list, was loaded onto the plane’s computers. An operations center officer told investigators, “I remember coming into shift and seeing a piece of paper with the [trauma center] grids on them. It was at least two days prior to the [hospital] strike.”
“The [no-strike list] was available but not considered,” the official report says.
• As the AC-130 crew hurried for takeoff, 69 minutes earlier than planned, there was not enough time to load additional data such as the no-strike list. A ground commander emailed the list, including the hospital’s location, to the gunship, but the AC-130’s satellite radio system for text and imaging failed. The crew never received the email. The sender never used other communication means to ask the aircraft whether the data had arrived. If the operations center had done that, it would have known that the AC-130 did not receive the data. The crew then could have received the no-strike list verbally.
• While orbiting over the hospital, the plane’s TV sensor operator found the actual enemy target 480 yards away by reinserting the correct grid. But he never followed through by convincing his battle mates that they were over the wrong target, and the crew went back to focusing on the hospital.
“The TV Sensor Operator was observing the actual [National Directorate] facility that was the target,” the report said.
• The aircraft’s fire control officer talked of killing just the nine people seen walking around the compound and not targeting buildings because he saw no threat. But the joint terminal attack controller insisted that the crew destroy the compound.
The fire control officer told the pilot, “If we were to engage this complex and not damage the building, I would recommend [redacted].”
• The Green Beret commander was in possession of the correct target grid but never asked the air crew members to compare the grid for the hospital they were orbiting. If he had, the grids would not have matched and the crew would have known the hospital was not the target.
• Frantic hospital staff called the U.S. operations center to say the facility was under air attack. The center at that point could have told the aircraft to cease fire after 22 minutes, but it did not, and the barrage continued for eight more minutes.
Last week, as the probe was released, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, summed up the mistake this way: “There is a lot on the ground. It’s a fast-moving situation. And we have young people — young leaders out there that are trying to make the right decision in the heat of combat. And sometimes it comes up wrong.”
Inserted into Kunduz via convoy on the night of Sept. 29, the Special Forces soldiers fought their way to a police headquarters building, from where they stayed in communication with the Afghan force that was under fire from the Taliban-held security building.
How did the Green Berets view what happened, post-strike?
“The decisions that were made were, with no doubt in my mind, made to keep Americans from getting killed,” one soldier said. “From a ground perspective, we had taken contact from very close proximity for a very long time throughout the entire mission and did what was in the best interest of keeping friendlies safe throughout the entire mission.”
The major who was the ground force commander was interrogated by a panel of investigators led by Army Maj. Gen. William Hickman. The investigators repeatedly asked Gen. Hickman how he came to approve a strike on a building he had not seen.
The officer’s answers showed that much of his decision was based on conjecture, not firm evidence. For example, there were no reports from the air crew, the only Americans who directly saw the target, that any of the nine people outside was armed. Rules of engagement typically say a suspected enemy combatant must be carrying a weapon.
“It made the most sense that they would be receiving fire from down one of the long east roads and since that’s where I expected them to go, that’s where I expected the fire to come from,” the officer testified.
He said he concluded that there could not possibly be a functioning public service building in that city section.
“I mean, it was, frankly, with the amount of contact that we had received and the vast majority of it coming from the west, it was unthinkable for me to believe that there would have been anything functional over there in terms of essential services,” he said.
Another Special Forces soldier told investigators that the team left the base confused about its mission.
“The convoy departed on the evening of 29 September 2015 without a clear guidance of task, purpose and end state of the mission from Resolute Support [the overall command] or [special operations joint task force],” he said.
No American soldier was killed. The small groups of Taliban who had taken key government buildings eventually were routed, and Kabul regained control of Kunduz.