Pentagon: Hospital bombing due to U.S. offensive strike to assist Afghan forces

The Pentagon revealed that the bombing of an Afghan hospital occurred when U.S. forces preemptively fired to clear the way for an Afghan offensive. U.S. and Afghan forces were not under fire when U.S. aircraft destroyed the hospital. Hari Sreenivasan takes an in-depth look at the series of errors with Jamie McIntyre of the Washington Examiner.

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    It was an American bombing of an Afghan hospital that killed dozens last year. Today, the Pentagon released a 3,000-page-long inquiry into the attack and the major mistakes that led to it.

    Hari Sreenivasan has the story.


    The Pentagon laid out the key findings of its full investigation today, as well as the fallout affecting 16 service members.

    Head of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel:

  • GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL, Commander, U.S. Central Command:

    The investigation concluded that certain personnel failed to comply with the rules of engagement in the law of armed conflict.


    The bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital last October in Kunduz, Afghanistan killed 42 people. Of the 16 service members who were punished, one was a two-star general and some were specials ops forces. They face administrative actions, but Votel maintained their actions didn't constitute a war crime.


    The label war crimes is typically reserved for intentional acts, intentionally targeting civilians or intentionally targeting protected objects or locations.

    The investigation found that the incident resulted from a combination of unintentional human errors, process errors and equipment failures, and that none of the personnel knew they were striking a hospital.


    Even though they didn't know they were hitting a hospital, the investigation found they made multiple fundamental and fatal errors.

    For example, the AC-130 gunship's targeting system became misaligned after its crew attempted to avoid fire over Kunduz. That resulted in their target appearing as an empty field, instead of a building filled with Taliban fighters firing on Afghan troops. The crew then switched its focus to the hospital, thinking it was the original target, based on descriptions relayed from special forces on the ground.


    So the aircraft is looking at one location. The ground force is thinking they're looking at another location. There's no way to visually confirm that back and forth between them, and their discussions, as you look at the transcripts, don't add clarity to that.


    Officials from Doctors Without Borders called it an insufficient explanation.

    In a statement, the group's president wrote: "Today's briefing amounts to an admission of an uncontrolled military operation in a densely populated urban area, during which U.S. forces failed to follow the basic laws of war."

    The organization pressed for an independent investigation. They pulled out of Kunduz entirely after the attack in October.

    For more on the military's investigation and the mistakes that were made, we turn to veteran Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre. He's now with The Washington Examiner and an occasional special correspondent for the "NewsHour."

    Jamie, when we first started reported the story when it happened in October, the narrative was that U.S. forces or Afghan forces were under attack and that this air cover was there in almost a defensive capacity. But the report paints a different picture.

  • JAMIE MCINTYRE, Washington Examiner:

    That's right.

    This is a really important point, Hari, because unlike in Iraq, where U.S. airstrikes are routinely helping forces on the ground conduct offensive operations, in Afghanistan, that's not supposed to be the case.

    Combat officially ended in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, so U.S. airstrikes are limited to just three very specific instances, protecting U.S. troops on the ground, going after remnants of al-Qaida, and protecting Afghan forces, if they're in danger of being overrun and slaughtered.

    Now, the commander on the ground said he did this because his forces were under fire. But what the report shows is that they were nowhere near this building. They weren't taking fire. In fact, he called in the airstrike in order to help the Afghan forces who were going to launch a raid on this government building where the Taliban was held up.

    So this tragic accident, which has a whole series of factors involved, never would have happened if the commander on the ground had not exceeded his authority in calling in that airstrike which was essentially to soften up the target so Afghani forces could mount an offensive. That's not something U.S. troops supposedly doing.


    All right, so let's talk about the series of errors that led to this tragedy.

    First, Doctors Without Borders has said, listen, we tell everyone in the battle theater exactly where our locations are. The military has this list. But it looks like this flight took off without that list to begin with.


    Yes, there is no question this was a protected site that was not supposed to be hit. It was on a no-strike list.

    But, as in any accident or mishap like this, there is a whole series of things that go wrong. You interrupt that chain at any point, the bad thing doesn't happen. And this one started when the AC-130 gunship took off in what it thought was an emergency mission to go help some U.S. troops on the ground. Turned out they didn't have to. They were on their way back.

    Because of that, they took off early, didn't have the no-strike list loaded into their plane. They also were then threatened by a shoulder-fired missile from the ground. That caused them to divert their course. Their radio antenna and satellite radio didn't work, so they couldn't get updated~ information.

    As you said in your report, when they came back, they were at a different angle. The targeting system pointed them to an empty field. And then they made the really fatal mistake. And that was to try to identify the target visually on the ground based on the description that they had.

    And they simply confused the hospital building for this government compound that was about a quarter-mile away. And once they thought that was the target, they were convinced. They were locked onto it. And they began really withering fire from the air that lasted almost a half-an-hour.


    And this is based~ off a description they're getting from someone who's on the ground not next to the hospital or next to where the fighting allegedly was happening, but several kilometers away.


    Yes, they were nine kilometers away.

    And that's another — normally, you have to have eyes on the target. There is somebody on the ground called a JTAC, joint tactical air controller, essentially a spotter who is spotting the target. They're supposed to have eyes on the target. What the report found was, nobody had eyes on the target, not the Afghans, not the Americans.

    And, of course, course, the crew of the plane didn't either. And this, by the way, is a very fearsome weapon, this AC-130 gunship. It's a modified AC-130 — C-130 aircraft with a series of cannons out the left side. It circles the target and just rains shells down on the target. It can really do damage to a target. And that's what happened here.


    Jamie, even in this report, there still seems to be a discrepancy in how long this attack took place. The government has one number and how many minutes the AC-130 was circling this hospital. But the Doctors Without Borders folks in the beginning had a different number.


    Yes, so they say it was about an hour-and-a-half.

    And, by the way, they were making desperate calls to the U.S.~ military headquarters, saying, look, we're being attacked. Call off that plane.

    The Pentagon today admitted~ that those calls, as you might expect, went through some layers of bureaucracy before they — the message was passed to ground commanders. According to the Pentagon's investigation, once they determined that was happening, the information was relayed to the plane crew, and they stopped shooting.

    But, again, as you mentioned, there's a discrepancy about that. And Doctors Without Borders has put out their own investigation, their own account of what happened based on the eyewitness reports of the people on the ground. And, really, it's really just a horrific description of this very, very terrible tragedy that happened in the very early morning hours of the day.


    Finally, let's talk about what's happening to these individuals. There were no criminal charges here. Why? And what happens to these people?


    Well, they decided not to court-martial anyone because they~ decided that this was an unintentional act, that at every step of the way, people were trying to do the right thing. They just made some very, very terrible mistakes.

    Now, ~the people involved in this got reprimands. Some of them got ordered to do training. That in the military is a serious thing. They refer to that as a career-ending letter of reprimand, because once you get one of these in your file, you're not going to be promoted. In the military, if you're not promoted, you have to leave.

    So, many of these people will end up leaving the military. And the Pentagon has made some changes since then. One thing they're doing now is, they're not sending out any planes out without pre-loading the information that has the no-strike list. You might think they had been doing that all along, but they weren't.




    And so they're trying to make sure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again.


    Washington Examiner Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre, thanks so much.

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