The Defense Department released today the findings of a investigation into the deadly U.S. airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that left 42 dead—including 30 civilians—this past October. The investigation concluded that the bombing was the result of the “fog of war.”
According to Central Command, the aircrew manning the AC-130U Gunship, in support of U.S. Special Forces that were partnered with Afghan military on the ground, mistakenly identified the Médecins Sans Frontières trauma hospital for a Taliban-controlled site 400 meters away. “A combination of human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures” as well as “fatigue and high operational tempo” brought about the fatal mistake, a summary of the investigation reads.
The MSF hospital was fully functioning at the time of the attack, and while Taliban combatants were being treated there, the investigation acknowledges that neither U.S. nor Afghan forces were taking fire from the hospital compound. “They were absolutely trying to do the right thing. They were trying to support our Afghan partners,” Army General Joseph Votel said at a press conference this morning. “Unfortunately, they made the wrong judgement in this case.”
“This was an extraordinarily intense combat situation,” Votel told reporters. The special operations forces “were doing a variety of actions at the same time: they were trying to support their Afghan partners, they were trying to execute resupply operations, and they were trying to protect themselves.”
CENTCOM’s investigation, which has been made available for public review, is one of at least two conducted by the American military into the incident. (The AP obtained the other report last year.) One email to investigators contained in the CENTCOM report indicates that personnel involved in the attack were not made aware of their mistake until weeks later:
Given that the strike was unintentional, Votel said, the incident cannot be considered a war crime. The American military has made condolence payments to more than 170 people affected by the incident, the general continued, including $3,000 to those injured in the attack and $6,000 to families of those killed. Sixteen military personnel have been subject to “administrative actions” as punishment for their involvement in the attack. The DOD has also approved $5.7 million to rebuild the destroyed facility.
“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,” MSF President Meinie Nicolai said in a statement. “It is incomprehensible that, under the circumstances described by the U.S., the attack was not called off.”
“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,” Nicolai’s statement read. “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.”
According to the report, the hospital “did not have an internationally- recognized symbol to identify it as a medical facility, such as a Red Cross or Red Crescent that was readily visible to the aircrew at night.” However, a New York Times reporter wrote on Twitter, “It was brightly lit.Spread on the hospital roof was a large white & red flag reading ‘Médecins Sans Frontiers,’the group’s French name.” In a number of places, the investigation references video footage of the attack pulled from the gunship’s cameras for review; a Defense Department spokesman did not respond to an inquiry from Gawker about whether that footage would be made public.
John Sifton, the Asia policy director for Human Rights Watch, also disputed Votel’s understanding of the law. “The most notable point in today’s briefing was that the report found that U.S. personnel violated the laws of armed conflict,” he told the Times. “And yet we are also told that the U.S. military has failed to charge even one person criminally. This is, simply put, inexplicable.”
“General Joseph Votel’s assertion that a war crime must be deliberate, or intentional, is flatly wrong,” Sifton said. In its statement, MSF reiterated its request for an independent investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact Finding Commission.