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‘Human error’ led to U.S. forces striking Afghan hospital

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    Nearly two months after a bombing at a hospital in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has completed its investigation into the incident. The announcement and details about why the hospital was mistakenly targeted came out today in Kabul.

    Hari Sreenivasan has our story.

    GEN. JOHN CAMPBELL, Commander, U.S. Forces – Afghanistan: This was a tragic mistake. U.S. forces would never intentionally strike a hospital or other protected facilities.


    General John Campbell, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the destruction of the hospital in the northern city of Kunduz was an avoidable accident. That's the judgment contained in a more-than-3,000-page report compiled since the early October attack.

    At least 31 civilians died and another 28 were injured when a U.S. warplane struck the facility operated by Doctors Without Borders, more commonly know by its French acronym, MSF. Despite repeated calls from its staff to American officials both inside and outside Afghanistan, the hospital was hammered by the American AC-130 gunship.

    The attack followed days of heavy fighting in Kunduz as Afghan and American forces fought to retake the city from the Taliban. Today, Campbell said the plane's crew had been given faulty location information of a suspected Taliban base.


    That U.S. strike upon the MSF trauma center in Kunduz city, Afghanistan, was the direct result of human error compounded by systems and procedural failures. 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.


    MSF has maintained no armed fighters were in the area near the hospital when the strike occurred. The group released its own report earlier this month. Today, it repeated its call for an independent investigation, and said the attack cannot only be dismissed as individual human error.

    Joining me now for more on this is Gordon Lubold of The Wall Street Journal. He's just been briefed on the report by Pentagon officials.

    So, the big question I think everyone is wondering is, how could they get this so wrong, when Doctors Without Borders goes out of their way to make sure that everyone in the theater knows exactly where the hospital is?

  • GORDON LUBOLD, The Wall Street Journal:


    So, what we learned from this report that was released today at the Pentagon and General Campbell, who is the commander of all allied and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is that this really was human error. It was just a combination of errors, really, to include some technical problems that they had on the gunship that was used during the October 3 strike that contributed to just the wrong targeting of the — targeting of the wrong building in Kunduz that night

    And it ended up being the hospital, not the building several hundred meters away that they meant to target.


    So, Afghan forces send in the coordinates to this gunship, but, according to the summary by the general, the gunship is, what, just out of range enough where their GPS is just a little off?



    Afghan forces conveyed coordinates to the right target, which happened to be an intelligence building where the Taliban was known to be positioned. Through U.S. special forces who were also on the ground there, they conveyed these coordinates to the crew of the gunship.

    But because the — some of the capabilities on the ship and on the plane itself were malfunctioning, a lot of this was communicated verbally, and the coordinates somehow got plugged in and, I think, maybe properly, but it malfunctioned and sent the crew to an empty field to be the target.

    The crew realized, this is the wrong place and relied then on a verbal description of the target, and then began striking for about a half-an-hour the hospital, and not the actual target, which was, as I say, several hundred meters away.

    And I think what we learned was that word never got to them in time to stop targeting that hospital, and they just simply didn't realize that that was the place they weren't supposed to hit.


    During the airstrikes, people from the hospital were calling anyone they could, and they were actually getting that information to headquarters, saying, listen, you're bombing us, you have the wrong target.

    But wasn't there a list that they could compare to say, OK, I guess, guys, you guys are bombing an area that's on our no-bomb list?



    And from the outside, even to me — and I cover this a lot — it doesn't quite make sense, like, why it would take that long for the kind of process to catch up with itself, when somebody's calling, as you say, and saying, like, you're bombing us, this is the wrong place.

    But I think that because of the communications errors, because of the — as somebody who's very familiar with it described to me this morning, said, the crew of the gunship had kind of convinced themselves that this was the target.

    I don't — again, I don't think that they were getting information that it wasn't the target yet, as I understand it. But because of the problems and the because of the verbal description that was given to them, they essentially were convinced that was the — they were doing the right thing, they were targeting the right place. And, obviously, they weren't.


    So, what are the consequences now that the government has this report?


    The consequences are that we don't know yet what will happen to these military personnel who have been suspended from their jobs.

    General Campbell will conduct an assessment, and then we will know who — what happens to these people. But, for now, we're in that zone of he's still conducting an investigation into what's going to happen to them.


    Gordon Lubold of The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much for joining us.


    Thank you.

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