The commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, has said the deadly air strike on the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz in the early hours of 3 October 2015 was “a direct result of avoidable human error compounded by process and equipment failures.” The US military investigation, moreover, found that several personnel closely involved in the attack had not followed US rules of engagement. Given that these rules incorporate key principles of the Geneva Conventions, not following them effectively means the attack breached the laws of war. Several battlefield-level personnel have been suspended. However, the failures in command which led to the attack on the hospital appear to have gone much higher. AAN’s Country Director Kate Clark takes a closer look.The main corridor of the MSF hospital in Kunduz after the 3 October airstrikes. Victor J Blue/MSF
After the attack on MSF hospital on 3 October 2015, which killed at least 30 people and injured at least 37 others, the US military conducted an investigation. The main – vetted – findings were presented during a press conference held in Kabul and relayed live to the Pentagon press corps on 25 November 2015. The US military said a redacted version of the investigation’s report would be released, but did not say when.
During the press conference, General Campbell said the US military had “learned from this terrible incident” and that he had “already directed some immediate changes to ensure we learn and apply the right lessons from this incident.” His spokesman, Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, said three times that “we are determined to learn the right lessons” and repeated that they were “committed to ensuring that this does not and cannot happen again.” (For a full transcript of their remarks see the end of this dispatch.) However, a closer look at the findings of the investigation and the US military’s response – as well as what was left unsaid – shows that the ‘mistakes’ were of a far more serious nature than Campbell would have us believe and that the lessons the military now intends to learn, have in fact long been standard operating procedure. The question remains whether the disregard of these procedures was intentional.
What went wrong – on the ground and in the air
Late on 30 September 2015, said Campbell, following the Taleban’s capture of Kunduz city (see AAN reporting here and here), “U.S. SOF [Special Operations Forces] and their Afghan counterparts moved from the airfield into the city and established themselves in the provincial chief of police, or PCOP, compound.”
On the evening of 2 October 2015, the Afghan SOF commander asked the US SOF commander for close air support for a clearing operation that night, including of the NDS headquarters which they believed was occupied by Taleban. The US SOF commander agreed to have air support on standby. By that time, Campbell said, US SOF and their Afghan allies had been engaged in heavy fighting for “nearly five consecutive days and nights.”
Campbell said the AC-130 aircraft designated to provide close air support actually launched more than an hour before it was due to leave, after receiving an emergency call to protect troops under fire. In the end, this particular aircraft was not needed and it proceeded on to its initial mission. However, the early take-off meant the crew had not received a normal mission brief for the NDS headquarters attack and had not secured “crucial mission essential related materials, including the no-strike designations which would have identified the location of the MSF trauma center [the hospital].”
No explanation was given as to why the aircrew had not already known about the hospital. Kunduz is a small city and the MSF hospital was a highly distinctive building – large, in the shape of a cross, and the only one lit up at night in a city without electricity because of its use of generators to keep the intensive care unit and operating theatres working. The US had used air assets every day since 29 September. Yet, Campbell would have us believe, this particular crew did not know about the hospital from earlier sorties which did have accurate lists of ‘no strike designations’.
Campbell further said the investigation had found the electronic systems on board the aircraft had malfunctioned, preventing the transmission of video, email or other electronic messages. He said this prevented “the operation of an essential command and control capability.”
He also said the aircrew had thought that, in the vicinity of Kunduz, they were being targeted by a missile (he gave no further details) and had moved away from what he called the aircraft’s “normal orbit to an orbit approximately eight miles from the mission area.” He said “this degraded the accuracy of certain targeting systems which later contributed to the misidentification of the MSF trauma center.”
The investigation determined, said Campbell, that the US SOF commander, who was still at the Provincial Police headquarters in the city, had given the “correct coordinates of the NDS headquarters building, the intended target of the Afghan SOF” through his joint Terminal Attack Controller or JTAC (an officer specialised in targeting). However, when the aircrew entered the coordinates into their fire control systems, Campbell said the coordinates produced the wrong location; they correlated instead to “an open field over 300 meters from the NDS headquarters.” This mistake happened, said Campbell, because the aircraft was several miles beyond its normal orbit and its sensors were degraded at that distance.
Alarm bells apparently did not ring for the aircrew when the coordinates led them to an empty field. Instead, according to Campbell, they visually located the “closest, largest building near the open field” whose physical description “roughly matched” that of the NDS HQ. It was the MSF trauma centre. (However, according to the US military’s map produced at the press conference, the NDS headquarters was actually nearer to the empty field – 329 metres away – than the MSF hospital was – 402 metres away.)
The crew also ignored what Campbell called other “contradictory indicators,” for example, “once the aircraft returned to its original orbit, the aircraft’s grid location system correctly aligned with the NDS facility instead of the open field.” Yet the crew remained “fixated on the physical description of the facility, and at that point, did not rely on the grid coordinate.” They also did not “observe hostile activity at the MSF trauma center” which, given they were supposed to be giving close air support, should also have been noticed as strange.
Campbell said the person who authorised the attack, the US SOF commander, had remained at the police headquarters compound and “was beyond the visual range of either the NDS headquarters or the MSF trauma center as he monitored the progress of his Afghan counterparts.” This indicates he was monitoring the progress of partners who had presumably been expecting close air support for their clearing operation on the NDS headquarters. Yet, neither the Afghans nor the US commander seems to have been surprised or alarmed when the air support did not turn up as planned.
Campbell further said:
“The report found that, under the circumstances, the U.S. SOF commander lacked the authority to direct the aircrew to engage the facility. The investigation also found that the U.S. SOF commander relied primarily upon information provided by Afghan partners and was unable to adequately distinguish between the NDS headquarters building at the MSF Trauma Center.”
And most damningly:
The report also determined that the personnel who requested the strike and those who executed it from the air did not undertake the appropriate measures to verify that the facility was a legitimate military target.
As AAN understands it, standard operating procedure has been for air strikes to be signed off by a one star general. For voluntary strikes like this one, where the strike is not in response to an emergency call to protect troops under attack, the bar for authorising a strike and ensuring civilians will not be harmed, is particularly high. Did the SOF commander on the ground have the seniority to authorise this air strike or had the rules of engagement been relaxed to allow more junior officers to authorise strikes? Also, were the normal checking procedures followed to ensure this was a military target was being attacked and there was not going to be disproportionate harm to civilians? Such procedures are always important, but are vital when launching air strikes in a built up area.
What went wrong – further up in the system
The failures extended beyond those immediately involved in the operation. Campbell said that, one minute before launching the attack, the aircrew transmitted to their operational headquarters at Bagram Airfield that they were about to engage the building and “provided the coordinates for the MSF Trauma Center as their target.” The headquarters failed to “realize that the grid coordinates for the target matched a location on the no-strike list or that the aircrew was preparing to fire on the hospital.” In other words, whoever had the task of checking to make sure air strikes do not target a protected site failed to carry out their job. Under the laws of war – the Geneva Conventions and other laws which protect civilians and reduce suffering during conflict – hospitals, medical staff and their patients enjoy special protection (for more detail, see here). It is for this reason that medical facilities give their coordinates and identify themselves to the warring parties in a conflict.
What Campbell called the “confusion” at Bagram was exasperated, he said, by the lack of video and electronic communications between the headquarters and the aircraft, caused by the earlier malfunction and “a [mistaken] belief at the headquarters that the force on the ground required air support as a matter of immediate force protection.” Headquarters staff, it seems, had not remembered/realised/been told that the mission of the AC-130 had changed.
Campbell did not describe the attack itself, but other reporting has showed that it was concerted. Survivors described the plane circled round again and again, making five passes in all. Munitions leveled much of the hospital and killed and injured at least 67 people, staff, patients and caretakers. Survivors described “massive explosions, sufficient to shake the ground”, “coming in concentrated volleys”, with attacks aimed at the main hospital and also at those trying to run away.
The duration of the attack according to the US investigation was 29 minutes. MSF, however, based on its record of mobile phone calls and text messages sent to Resolute Support and the Pentagon, among others, to try to stop the strike, said it lasted closer to an hour. Campbell said MSF had called a SOF officer at Bagram twelve minutes after the strike started, but it took the command 17 minutes to discover the error and by that time, the AC-130 had already ceased firing. It is unclear, and unexplained, why it took so long.
Also left unexplained was why the Afghan authorities have been so adamant and so consistent in their version of events, that this was a correctly targeted strike, intentionally made on the hospital because they said – and MSF has denied – there were active Taleban fighters there and they were coming under fire from them.
What really went wrong
In conclusion, Campbell summarised the blame like this:
… the approximate cause of this tragedy was a direct result of avoidable human error compounded by process and equipment failures. In addition, the report found that fatigue and high operation tempo contributed to this tragedy. It also identified failures in systems and processes that, while not the cause of the strike on the MSF Trauma Center, contributed to the incident.
However, rather than a simple string of human errors, this seems to have been a string of reckless decisions, within a larger system that failed to provide the legally proscribed safeguards when using such firepower. There were also equipment failures that compounded the problem but, again, if the forces on the ground and in the air had followed their own rules of engagement, the attack would have been averted.
The US SOF commander, according to Campbell, had relied primarily upon information from Afghan partners and, Campbell said, had been “unable to adequately distinguish between the NDS headquarters building and the MSF Trauma Center.” The word ‘distinguish’ is key, as under the laws of war, the commander had a duty to distinguish between civilian and military targets. If he was unable to do so, he should not have ordered the strike. The aircrew had also recklessly assumed they were homing in on a legitimate military target, while choosing what was in essence a random building that happened to be near the coordinates they had received and one, moreover, from which there was no hostile activity. These are not errors, but rather reckless decisions which failed to distinguish between civilian and military targets and failed – again a legal obligation – to take “all feasible precautions” to protect civilians.
There are also questions surrounding whether the SOF commander’s use of airpower was justified by US mission parameters. (1) When asked about this, the US military spokesman, General Shoffner said, “Under these circumstances, US assets can be used to support Afghan forces if they request air support. Ultimately that decision is in the hands of a [sic] U.S commander.” He was pressed again:
Q: Do I understand your answer to mean that no, this is not the proper circumstance under which to use combat power? Is that what you’re saying?
GEN. SHOFFNER: The investigation found that some of the U.S. individuals involved did not follow the rules of engagement.
This was one of several times Shoffner answered by saying some US individuals had not followed the rules of engagement. He made the same reply when asked whether the aircrew had ever expressed “any concern or question the validity or legality of the target they were about to strike” and “whether, given “there were so many problems with systems and with comms and with identifying targets… that attack [was] allowed to proceed?” He also gave the same answer to a question asking whether the attack had been ‘proportional’, given, the journalist said, “every U.S. servicemen from basic training all the way through and prior to deploying must … review the basic laws of war, including proportionality and distinction.”
When asked about taking precautions to protect civilians, Shoffner said:
The investigation found that — that the actions of the aircrew and the special operations commander were not appropriate to the threats that they faced. The investigating officers’ recommendations on this matter have been referred to the proper authorities for disposition and I won’t comment on that further.
The legal duty on parties to a conflict to take precautions to protect civilians is, however, systemic, not just at the individual level. Campbell admitted that “failures in systems and processes that, while not the cause of the strike on the MSF Trauma Center, contributed to the incident” included “the nature of the planning and approval process employed during operations at Kunduz City and the lack of a single system to vet proposed targets against a no-strike list.”
This means that, after all these years, precautions – on the ground, in the air, and within the higher command – were still not adequate to ensure civilian and military targets were distinguished. Procedures to ensure that protected sites were not attacked were not followed. The chain of command and communication did not function when MSF’s designated point of contact in the US military tried to urgently stop an illegal and deadly operation.
Campbell promised to learn lessons from the ‘tragedy’ of 3 October 2015. However, the US military had already learned such lessons from many ‘mistakes’ over many years of catastrophic air strikes, which killed hundreds of Afghan civilians in the years after 2001. Starting from around 2008-2009, the US command realised those deaths were undermining America’s military and political mission in Afghanistan, after which, successive commanders of ISAF and US forces repeatedly tightened the rules of engagement, especially with regard to air strikes.
Over the years, the US learned not to rely on Afghan intelligence, because it was often mistaken or mischievous. It learned to take special care when strikes were voluntary, ie not launched to protect troops in imminent danger on the ground. Even when air power was used to protect ‘troops in contact’, it was increasingly used judiciously with the aim of not harming civilians disproportionately. Those rules of engagement succeeded in massively bringing down the number of civilians killed in airstrikes . Many would argue (2) they also actually brought US forces into line with the laws of war.
It appears that what happened on the night of 3 October amounted to a throwing away of the rule book.
In general, says the US “Department of Defence Law of War Manual” rules of engagement “reflect legal, policy, and operational considerations” but are always “consistent with the international law obligations of the United States, including the law of war.” States use them, says the Manual, to implement “their law of war obligations during military operations.” The failure of US forces to follow their own rules on 3 October is, then, more serious than General Campbell made it sound. The attack on the MSF hospital involved not only violations of the US military’s rules of engagement but breaches of the laws of war: US forces failed to distinguish between civilians and military targets, failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and launched an indiscriminate attack. (3)
According to General Campbell “those individuals most closely associated with the incident have been suspended from their duties, pending consideration and disposition of administrative and disciplinary matters.” But the problems went higher than that – to those planning, vetting targets and to Campbell himself who has command responsibility for ensuring that both the rules of engagement and the laws of war are respected.
Have the rules of engagement been ‘liberalised’?
During the late ISAF years, keeping civilian casualties down had become a central part of the military command, particularly under General John Allen (see AAN reporting here who was both commander of ISAF and Enduring Freedom, the separate US counter-terrorism mission which also answered to the same rules. This was during the surge years when the US and ISAF was actively battling the insurgency with offensive strikes and kill/capture operations. However, not only had the rules of engagement become very strict, (4) but General Allen had also made it a personal priority that they were implemented effectively. A senior officer whose sole responsibility was mitigating civilian casualties sat in the command centre and answered directly to Allen who had also ordered that he be notified, day or night, of any incident. All incidents and ‘near misses’ were investigated by a team which carried clout, and lessons learned were actively fed back into procedures to improve them. Soldiers deploying to Afghanistan were given ‘scenario training’ on applying the rules of engagement and officers were sacked for breaching them. During this period, ISAF and the US military were more open to discussions, allegations and feedback from NGOs, the United Nations and civil society: transparency, the military held, would help reduce the numbers of civilians needlessly being killed. Those working in this field have noticed a new secrecy surrounding such matters.
In addition, when it comes to US forces in Afghanistan, the dividing line between the two military missions currently operating has been blurred: US forces are interchangeably used for the NATO Resolute Support non-combat mission and the US military counter-terrorism, partially combat, Freedom’s Sentinel mission. Campbell is the commander of both missions. As AAN has reported, this blurring has led to confusion as to who answers for what and what may be permissible for particular forces, depending on what mandate they might be under that day.
The ‘unlearning’ of lessons of the past has appeared to coincide with a possible “liberalisation” of the rules of engagement during the battle to retake Kunduz (according to a senior US military officer speaking to AAN). The hospital strike was not the only legally questionable strike that night, according to Washington Post reporting. Two other strikes on 2/3 October that thankfully only hit a house and a factory, both empty, were also reportedly requested by Afghan forces to locations where they said they were under pressure from Taleban. According to residents in the area interviewed by the Post, there was, however, no longer an insurgent presence. These strikes seem to have been ordered with the same recklessness and disregard for the obligation to distinguish civilian from military targets.
What happens next?
Campbell told the Kabul and Pentagon press corps, “Matters regarding individual accountability will be managed in accordance with standard military justice and administrative practices for joint commands. I have decided to refer some of the recommendations to the command of U.S. Special Operations Command for his review and action, as appropriate.” So far, only those “closely involved in the strike” appear to have been singled out for suspension.
It is a familiar pattern in the US military, and other organisations, to let junior staff carry the blame. However, from what Campbell told the press, the failures went far higher than just those on the ground and in the air, and went to those in the highest command who were responsible for the planning, vetting and setting the parameters of the campaign.
Campbell claimed that the investigation was independent because it had been carried out by US officers not under his command. However, he is both commanding and adjudicating officer and this is an internal investigation from an organisation with an abysmal record on holding its own accountable, particularly senior officers. It is not surprising that the calls for an independent investigations continue. Human Rights Watch has said a criminal investigation is necessary, while MSF continues to call for an independent international investigation mandated by the UN. Its director, Christopher Stokes, said:
“The US version of events presented today leaves MSF with more questions than answers…
The frightening catalogue of errors outlined today illustrates gross negligence on the part of US forces and violations of the rules of war.”
It is clear that the Afghan government will not press for greater accountability. Unlike President Karzai, who was outraged when Afghan civilians were killed, President Ghani and CEO Abdullah would like more US military involvement and have been reluctant to criticise their US allies. A Afghan government statement said it was confident the US investigation had “been conducted in a thorough manner and will reveal measures that can be taken to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.” Most earlier statements by government figures, moreover, had falsely accused MSF of hosting Taleban fighters. Even now, in the government’s statement, President Ghani is still largely blaming the Taleban for the hospital attack: “‘Such mistakes can and should be avoided, but it is also a painful demonstration of the cost of war being brought upon us by terrorist groups and enemies of Afghanistan.’”
The seriousness of the actions and failures revealed in the US military’s investigation were great, major enough, it seems, for the command to release the report on the eve of one of the quietest days in the US Calendar – Thanksgiving. They must have hoped it would be a good day to bury bad news.
(1) The journalist was referring to the fact that the US officially has a ‘non-combat mission’ in Afghanistan. As AAN has reported, the US’s declared non-combat mission in Afghanistan has long actually been, in part, a combat mission. The US under its agreement with the Afghan government has a ‘train, assist and advice’ role, although the agreement says “US military operations [in support of Afghan operations] to defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates may be appropriate.” Self defence is also always permitted whether or not the mission is combat or non-combat. In this instance, however, US troops were not under fire and the strike was ordered to protect Afghan forces against the Taleban, not al Qaeda.
(2) See for example, Human Rights Watch’s 2008 report “Troops in Contact” which looked at the US military’s use of airstrikes in Afghanistan to protect ground troops, and the deaths and injuries done to civilians in those attacks:
The cases described here raise concerns as to whether the attacking forces acted in accordance with their obligation under the laws of war to exercise “constant care to spare the civilian population” and take “all feasible precautions” to minimize loss of civilian life. This obligation requires that combatants do everything feasible to verify that targets are “military objectives,” and not civilians; that the means and methods of warfare are chosen to minimize civilian loss; and that the expected civilian loss is not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage expected. Attacks that do not meet these requirements must be cancelled or suspended.
(3) The International Committee of the Red Cross’ online database cataloguing the 161 rules of customary international humanitarian law includes the following (original legal citations can be seen online):
Rule 1. The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians.
Rule 11. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited.
Rule 12. Indiscriminate attacks are those:
(a) which are not directed at a specific military objective;
(b) which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or
(c) which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by international humanitarian law;
and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.
Rule 15. In the conduct of military operations, constant care must be taken to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects. All feasible precautions must be taken to avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.
(4) See for example the ISAF commander’s Tactical Directive (‘directive’ is another term for rules of engagement) of 30 November 2011 which includes the order:
Every Afghan is a civilian until otherwise apparent;
All compounds are civilian structures until otherwise apparent;
In every location where there is evidence of human habitation, civilians are present until otherwise apparent.
Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Campbell via teleconference from Afghanistan
General John F. Campbell, commander, U.S. forces in Afghanistan; Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office; Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, Deputy Chief of Staff for Communication, Operation Resolute Support, Afghanistan
GENERAL JOHN CAMPBELL: Well, good evening and good morning back in Washington, D.C. I received a report of the U.S. national investigation into the strike on Doctors Without Borders, MSF Trauma Center in Kunduz City, Afghanistan on October 3, 2015. Let me start by offering my sincere condolences to the victims of this devastating event. No nation does more to prevent civilian casualties than the United States, but we failed to meet our own high expectations on October 3.
This was a tragic, but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error. It was important that the officers investigating the incident had the requisite seniority and independence to conduct a thorough and unbiased inquiry. For that reason, I requested an outside investigative team.
U.S. Central Command supported my request and sent an army major general, independent of U.S. forces-Afghanistan, to lead the investigation. He was assisted by two brigadier generals, one from the Army and one from the Air Force, also outside from my command.
The report included specific findings relating to systems, processes and personnel, and I’ve already approved some of the findings and recommendations. Based on the recommendations, I’ve already directed some immediate changes to ensure we learn and apply the right lessons from this incident. In addition to the U.S. national investigation, a NATO and Afghan partner combined civilian casualty assessment team, or CCAT, also conducted an investigation.
The findings of both reports were generally consistent. I personally briefed the NATO secretary-general, General Breedlove SACEUR, President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah on the results of the CCAT. NATO will release the CCAT report in the coming days. Also, earlier today, I briefed MSF on the results of the U.S. national and CCAT investigations.
Recommendations dealing with systems and processes will be managed within this command and adopted consistent with current operations. Matters regarding individual accountability will be managed in accordance with standard military justice and administrative practices for joint commands. I have decided to refer some of the recommendations to the command of U.S. Special Operations Command for his review and action, as appropriate.
I won’t discuss individual cases because our system requires fairness and the discretion of individual decision-makers. I can tell you that those individuals most closely associate with the incident have been suspended from their duties, pending consideration and disposition of administrative and disciplinary matters. Because I am still in the process of reviewing the investigative report and investigating officers report, I will defer any questions today to my spokesperson, Brigadier General Shoffner, as mentioned earlier.
That said, I’m able to provide an accounting of the events of October 3rd, 2015.
The report determined that the 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 U.S. forces directly involved in this incident did not know the targeted compound was the MSF trauma center.
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. The report also determined that the personnel who requested the strike and those who executed it from the air did not undertake the appropriate measures to verify that the facility was a legitimate military target.
It’s important to place events leading up to this tragic incident in context. On the evening of September 27th, Kunduz City was suddenly attacked by a significant force of Taliban and associated insurgents. By the evening of September 28th, local Afghan forces quickly withdrew, leaving the Taliban in control of most of the city. On September 29th, MSF sent the coordinates of their trauma center in Kunduz to multiple recipients within the U.S. and NATO chains of command.
Those coordinates were received and distributed by this headquarters to subordinate headquarters. The United States special operation forces and their Afghan counterparts were rapidly deployed to a camp adjacent to the Kunduz airfield in the early morning on September 29th. By that evening, they were forced to defend the Kunduz airfield from a Taliban attack.
U.S. SOF maintained defensive positions at the airfield throughout the night, until the early morning on September 30th. Later that day, U.S. SOF and their Afghan counterparts moved from the airfield into the city and established themselves in the provincial chief of police, or PCOP, compound. Between the time that the team was established inn the PCOP compound and the time of the incident on October 3rd, U.S. and their Afghan SOF partners repelled heavy and sustained enemy attacks and conducted multiple defensive strikes in Kunduz.
By October 3rd, U.S. SOF had remained at the PCOP compound longer than intended in continued support of Afghan forces. As a result, by the early morning hours of October 3rd, U.S. SOF at the PCOP compound had been engaged in heavy fighting for nearly five consecutive days and nights.
During the evening of October 2nd, Afghan SOF advised the U.S. SOF commander that they intended to conduct a clearing operation that night. This included a former national director of security, or NDS, headquarters building they believed was occupied by insurgents. The Afghans requested U.S. close air support as they conducted their clearing operation. The U.S. SOF commander agreed to have the support on standby. He remained at the PCOP compound during the operation and was beyond the visual range of either the NDS headquarters or the MSF trauma center as he monitored the progress of his Afghan counterparts.
The report found that from this point forward multiple errors occurred that ultimately resulted in the misidentification of and the strike on the MSF trauma center.
First, the AC-130 aircraft designated to provide close air support in Kunduz city launched 69 minutes early, in response to a troops-in contact situation.
This type of emergency requires an immediate response. But the result was that the aircraft launched without conducting a normal mission brief or securing crucial mission essential related materials, including the no-strike designations which would have identified the location of the MSF trauma center.
Because this AC-130 aircraft and crew were ultimately not needed for the initial troops in contact mission, they were diverted in flight to provide close air support to the U.S. SOF commander in Kunduz. During the flight, the electronic systems onboard the aircraft malfunctioned, preventing the operation of an essential command and control capability and eliminating the ability of aircraft to transmit video, send and receive e-mail or send and receive electronic messages. This is an example of technical failure.
In addition, as the aircraft arrived in the vicinity of Kunduz, the aircrew believe it was targeted by a missile, forcing the aircraft to move away from its normal orbit to an orbit approximately eight miles from the mission area. This degraded the accuracy of the certain — this degraded the accuracy of certain targeting systems which later contributed to the misidentification of the MSF trauma center.
I’d like to refer you to the chart now in order to show you key locations as I describe the events. To give you some scale, the distance from the top to the bottom of this graphic is approximately 1,000 meters. The U.S. SOF command on the ground was located at the provincial chief of police compound, depicted by the green dot in the upper right of the chart.
Through his joint Terminal Attack Controller, or JTAC, the U.S. SOF commander provided the aircraft with the correct coordinates to the NDS headquarters building, the intended target of the Afghan SOF. The green 1 depicts the location of the NDS compound. Again, this was the building that the U.S. SOF commander intended to strike. But when the aircrew entered the coordinates into their fire control systems, the coordinates correlated to an open field over 300 meters from the NDS headquarters. The yellow 2 on the chart depicts the location of the open field.
This mistake happened because the aircraft was several miles beyond its normal orbit and its sensors were degraded at that distance. The investigating officer found that the aircrew visually located the closest, largest building near the open field, which we now know was the MSF trauma center. The MSF trauma center is depicted by the red 3 on the chart.
The physical description of the NDS headquarters building provided by the Afghan SOF to the U.S. SOF commander roughly matched the description of the MSF trauma center as seen by the aircrew. At night, the aircrew was unable to identify any signs of the hospital’s protected status.
This second chart shows the MSF facility pre-strike. This is what the aircrew was able to visualize, although it would have been seeing the facility at night. According to the report, the aircrew concluded, based on the JTAC’s description of a large building near a field, that the MSF trauma center was the NDS headquarters.
Tragically, this misidentification continued throughout the remainder of the operation, even though there was some contradictory indicators. For example, once the aircraft returned to its original orbit, the aircraft’s grid location system correctly aligned with the NDS facility instead of the open field. However, the crew remain fixated on the physical description of the facility, and at that point, did not rely on the grid coordinate. Also, the investigators found that the aircrew did not observe hostile activity at the MSF trauma center. These are examples of human and procedural errors.
The report determined that as the operation proceeded, the U.S. SOF commander, through the JTAC, requested the aircraft to engage a building that the aircrew mistakenly believed was the NDS headquarters.
The report found that, under the circumstances, the U.S. SOF commander lacked the authority to direct the aircrew to engage the facility. The investigation also found that the U.S. SOF commander relied primarily upon information provided by Afghan partners and was unable to adequately distinguish between the NDS headquarters building at the MSF Trauma Center.
According to the report, one minute prior to firing, the aircrew transmitted to their operational headquarters at Bagram Airfield that they were about to engage the building. They provided the coordinates for the MSF Trauma Center as their target. The headquarters was aware of the coordinates for the MSF Trauma Center and had access to the no-strike list, but did not realize that the grid coordinates for the target matched a location on the no-strike list or that the aircrew was preparing to fire on the hospital.
This confusion was exasperated by the lack of video and electronic communications between the headquarters and the aircraft, caused by the earlier malfunction and a belief at the headquarters that the force on the ground required air support as a matter of immediate force protection.
The strike began at 2:08 a.m. At 2:20 a.m., a SOF officer at Bagram received a call from MSF, advising that their facility was under attack. It took the headquarters and the U.S. special operations commander until 2:37 a.m. to realize the fatal mistake. At that time, the AC-130 had already ceased firing. The strike lasted for approximately 29 minutes.
This is an example of human and process error. The investigation found that the strike resulted in the death of 30 staff, patients and assistants and the injury of 37 others. U.S. Air Forces Afghanistan is currently working hand-in-hand with MSF to identify the injured and the families of those who lost loved ones in order that we may offer appropriate condolences.
Based upon the information learned during the investigation, the report determined that the approximate cause of this tragedy was a direct result of avoidable human error compounded by process and equipment failures. In addition, the report found that fatigue and high operation tempo contributed to this tragedy. It also identified failures in systems and processes that, while not the cause of the strike on the MSF Trauma Center, contributed to the incident.
These included the loss of electronic communication systems on aircraft, the nature of the planning and approval process employed during operations at Kunduz City and the lack of a single system to vet proposed targets against a no-strike list. We have reviewed each of these failures and implemented corrections as appropriate.
We have learned from this terrible incident. We’ll also take appropriate administrative and disciplinary action through a process that is fair and thoroughly considers the available evidence. The cornerstone of our military justice system is the independence of decision-makers following a thorough investigation such as this one. We will study what went wrong and take the right steps to prevent it in the future.
As I said in an earlier statement, this was a tragic mistake. U.S. forces would never intentionally strike a hospital or other protected facilities. Our deepest condolences go to all of the individuals and families that were affected by this tragic incident. We will offer our assistance to Doctors Without Borders in rebuilding the hospital in Kunduz.
Doctors without Borders is a respected humanitarian organization that does important life-saving work, not only within Afghanistan, but around the world. Alongside our Afghan partners, we will work to assist and support them in this critical role that they play in this country.
Again, thank you very much time — thank you very much for your time. I will be followed by General Shoffner as he will take your questions.
BRIGADIER GENERAL WILSON SHOFFNER: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and good morning to those of you joining us from Washington, D.C. I’m Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, the spokesman for Resolute Support and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.
Regarding the investigation, what we’ve said from the beginning is that we are determined to ensure this investigation is both thorough and transparent. The fact that we’re even doing this press conference today is unusual, but as Secretary Carter has said, we are committed to ensuring full accountability on this incident.
This investigation is an important step, but it is only one step in the overall process. U.S. authorities may determine that additional investigations are required, and if so, that process will take additional time. We also have to ensure that due process for anyone who may be involved in this process.
In an effort to be transparent, we are going to share everything that we possibly can at this point. Once the investigation is redacted, the full report will be posted to the U.S. Central Command website and we’ll provide you a link to that at the completion of this press conference.
At this time, I will take your questions and Lynn O’Donnell, let’s start with you.
Q: Thank you.
Talking about suspensions — (inaudible) — and followed the due process, et cetera. It sounds like a lot of — violations — multiple violations of the rules of law here dressed up as human error. There is a chain of command, there has to be a point of responsibility. Where does the buck stop? Does it stop with General Campbell, who took his authority directly from the President — Are we looking at him being forced or even a matter of honor offering his resignation?
The other thing that interests me about this is that Afghan officials have said all along that the hospital — they specifically referred to the hospital as they command and control center for the insurgents. So you know, when did the NDS come into this? In the process of making the decision whether or not to continue with the attack, when does the NDS come into this?
And in terms of — you know, I think like a contradiction. So I’m just wondering what impact will this whole incident have on the level of trust between U.S. NATO and Afghan forces going forward? Because you have to work very closely going forward.
GEN. SHOFFNER: To the first part of your question, the investigation found that some individuals involved did not follow the rules of engagement.
In terms of what happens next, as I said, the investigation itself is an important step in the process, but it is just one step toward full accountability.
Based on his findings, the investigating officer made several recommendations. General Campbell has decided to retain some of those recommendations at his level and he has referred others to the commander of the U.S. SOCOM for his review and action as appropriate.
The individuals most closely associated with the incident have been suspended from their duty positions. I won’t comment on the recommendations that have been made while those reviews are underway, and I won’t comment on individual cases that are underway, as we have to allow for due process for those involved and we must allow for the independent review by the decision-makers involved.
To the second part of your question, I won’t speak for Minister (Stanikzine ?), but I will point out that on the civilian casualty assessment team investigation that was done, that wasn’t just a U.S. investigation. It was a NATO investigation. The members of the team consisted of coalition partners, U.S. and non-U.S. It consisted of seven Afghans that were appointed by President Ghani.
On the civilian casualty assessment team, and I need to point out the purpose of that was different from the 15-6. It was intentionally narrow in purpose. It was designed to determine the basic facts and then to validate whether or not these civilian casualties had occurred. It did that. And the results of the civilian casualty assessment team report informed the 15-6 investigation.
As to your final statement or your final question, we remain committed to working with our Afghan partners to help them build sustainable security in Afghanistan.
Q: (inaudible) — New York Times.
Can you tell us how many individuals were suspended? And also, was — was General Campbell himself interviewed by the investigators?
GEN. SHOFFNER: All I can tell you is that some individuals have been suspended from their duty positions. I can also say that U.S. authorities may direct additional investigations to determine whether further actions are warranted regarding actions of specific individuals that were involved.
Should additional investigations be required, those will be made public once complete and redacted. Again, we have a responsibility to ensure due process for those involved.
Q: And General Campbell, was he interviewed by the investigators?
GEN. SHOFFNER: I won’t comment on General Campbell’s position, as he is reviewing some of the recommendations that have been made in his capacity as the appointing officer for the investigation.
COL. LAWHORN: (inaudible) — on one — (inaudible) — at this time, Roger, can you hear us at the Pentagon?
CAPT. DAVIS: We — we hear you just fine. Can you hear us?
COL. LAWHORN: Yes.
GEN. SHOFFNER: Yeah, we’ve got you. Go ahead.
Q: Hello. This is Bob Burns from Associated Press, General.
Question for you about — you referred to the rules of engagement were violated. Aside from reaching the point where there were a combination of human error and other malfunctions, was the basic decision to use air power under these circumstances justified, given the noncombat role that the U.S. assumed at the end of 2014? In other words, there are very limited, narrow circumstances under which is the use of force is permitted, and did that — did this fit that circumstance? thank you.
GEN. SHOFFNER: Under certain circumstances, U.S. assets can be used to support Afghan forces if they request air support. Ultimately, that decision is in the hands of a U.S. commander. I won’t get into the specific rules of engagement on that, but I will tell you that we are determined to learn the right lessons from this.
We’re committed to ensuring that this doesn’t happen again. We will evaluate all the recommendations in this report and use them to improve our systems and our processes. We take all reports of civilian casualties seriously and we review each one of them thoroughly.
General Campbell has already directed a thorough review of our planning process as well as our targeting process. This will take place at all echelons of command and we’ll conduct a thorough examination of how we develop and how we use no-strike lists.
Q: General, a very quick follow-up from Bob Burns. Do I understand your answer to mean that no, this is not the proper circumstance under which to use combat power? Is that what you’re saying?
GEN. SHOFFNER: The investigation found that some of the U.S. individuals involved did not follow the rules of engagement.
Q: Jim Miklaszewski from NBC News. General, Doctors Without Borders, which has proven to be a pretty reliable source in regard to what happened there in Kunduz, said that they made at least two phone calls, one just prior to and one during the airstrike, to the Pentagon. And we’ve been told that that information was relayed from Joint Staff to the NMCC that they were under attack.
Did that information ever reach the operators there in the battlefield?
GEN. SHOFFNER: What I’d like to do is, to better answer that question, just briefly review the sequence of events leading up to the issue at hand. Approximately 12 minutes after the firing commenced, Doctors Without Borders called to report the attack. Unfortunately, by the time U.S. forces realized the mistake, the aircraft had stopped firing.
It’s important to remember that this was a complicated and a chaotic situation. The AC-130 had already been shot at by a surface-to-air missile. U.S. personnel at the time were focused on doing what they had been trained to do. That said, chaos does not justify this tragedy.
Let me be very clear. We did not intentionally strike the hospital. We are absolutely heartbroken over what has occurred here and we will do absolutely everything in our power to make sure that it does not happen again.
You mentioned Doctors Without Borders. We have great respect for the important and life-saving work Doctors Without Borders does in Afghanistan and around the world. We’re committed to working with them. We’re committed to helping them, as General Campbell mentioned, rebuild the hospital and provide condolence payments for those affected by this terrible tragedy.
We appreciate their dedication toward easing the suffering of those affected by conflict and we will do everything within our power to enable their efforts.
COL. LAWHORN: Let’s take one last one from the Pentagon before we lose their connection.
So Pentagon, go ahead.
Q: General, just a couple of quick follows up — follow-ups. Did the flight crew aboard the AC-130 ever express any concern or question the validity or legality of the target they were about to strike? And if there were so many problems with systems and with comms and with identifying targets, why was not — why was that attack allowed to proceed?
GEN. SHOFFNER: I’ll tell you that the investigation found that some of the U.S. individuals involved did not follow the rules of engagement.
CAPT. DAVIS: Tom Bowman from NPR.
Q: General, Tom Bowman. A couple of questions.
When was the MSF called, looks like less than halfway into this attack and it took 17 minutes, you guys say, for the commanders to realize they made a mistake. That’s almost half the amount of time of the attack itself. Why did it take so long? Did you ever get an answer to that?
And also, if there’s no fire coming from the hospital, no clear threat, why would they think this was a legitimate target?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well, the investigation found that the medical facility was misidentified as a target by U.S. personnel who believed that they were striking a different building several hundred meters away where there were reports of combatants. I think it might be helpful to put this in context. At the time of the incident, U.S. and Afghan forces in Kunduz had been fighting for five days when the incident occurred. Both U.S. and Afghan forces had reports of Taliban throughout the city of Kunduz.
Again, we are determined to learn the right lessons and we’re committed to ensuring that this does not and cannot happen again.
Let’s go to a question here in Kabul.
COL. LAWHORN: We’ll take the questions here in the room. We’ll just — (inaudible).
GEN. SHOFFNER: So General Campbell has already directed that all U.S. personnel in theater receive training on targeting authorities and on the rules of engagement. General Campbell has also directed that we conduct a comprehensive review of our planning process, as well as our targeting process at all echelons of command. He has directed a thorough examination of how — what we develop and how we use no-strike lists.
Q: May I continue?
GEN. SHOFFNER: You may, please.
COL. LAWHORN: Do you have a follow-up?
Q: You want to continue that kind of close air support to the Afghan forces in the future?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Again, I will state that we remain committed to working closely with our Afghan allies as we assist them in their efforts to build sustainable security for this country.
COL. LAWHORN: Let’s go to — (inaudible) Washington Post.
Q: Yes. (inaudible) — Washington Post. A few hours before the MSF strike, an NDS building and buildings surrounding were actually struck by U.S. airstrikes. So the location was totally known. How do you — how do you account for this discrepancy a few hours later? The coordinate shift, and as you say, the MSF hospital was mistaken for the NDS building when just a few hours earlier, there had been an attack, had been — (inaudible) — there and had a strike in that area.
GEN. SHOFFNER: The investigation found that the U.S. special operations forces commander did rely on information provided by the Afghan partners on the location of the NDS compound. However, the investigation determined that those grid coordinates given by the Afghan forces to that NDS compound were correct.
And let me comment on — just a minute on how we came to that conclusion. The investigative team went to great lengths to ensure a full and impartial accounting of the facts and the circumstances. They were driven by the need to be thorough, not by a timeline. Investigative team consisted of three general officers and a dozen subject-matter experts.
They spent a full three weeks completing their report. They visited the Doctors Without Borders site. They visited other sites within Kunduz. They interviewed over 65 witnesses. And they compiled over 3,000 pages of documentary evidence.
They also visited and engaged with each echelon in the chain of command. We stand by their findings and recommendations. And we support the process by which they conducted the investigation.
COL. LAWHORN: Let’s go to — (inaudible) — and — (inaudible).
(inaudible) — asking for — (inaudible). Do you share the — (inaudible)? What was — (inaudible) — response — (inaudible)?
GEN. SHOFFNER: I’m sorry. Could you repeat the first part of your question?
Q: (inaudible) — asking — (inaudible) — investigation — (inaudible). What was your response?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Thank you.
General Campbell did meet with representatives from Doctors Without Borders. When he met with them, they provided their initial review. General Campbell read and considered that initial review. He also gave it to the investigative team. They read it and they considered that as they wrote their report.
I’ll also point out that the findings of the U.S. national investigation, the 15-6, were consistent with that of the CCAT, the combined civilian casualty assessment team. So again, we’re confident with those two investigations coming to the same conclusions, we’re confident in those findings.
Are you going to allow an international independent investigation? General Campbell is the commanding officer and apparently also the adjudicating the officer. And it seems the investigation team was all American — also the forces involved in the attack were all American. Is there any problem with that? While you say it’s not an intentional strike, that in no way abrogates the laws of the rule of war.
Every U.S. servicemen from basic training all the way through and prior to deploying must be — must review the basic laws of war, including proportionality and distinction. Even if you had struck the proper place, do you think that the attack was proportional?
And in terms of – its not just rules of engagement, in terms of the basic laws of war why would more training make things better?
GEN. SHOFFNER: The investigative team has completed a thorough investigation. And we’re confident with the facts and the evidence collected.
With regard to your question on the rules of engagement, the investigation, the investigation
Q: laws of war, not rules of engagement, laws of war
GEN. SHOFFNER: I can tell you what the investigation found, and the investigation found that some of the U.S. individuals involved did not follow the rules of engagement.
With regard to your question on proportionality, the investigation found that the actions of the aircrew and the Special Operations Forces were not appropriate to the threats that they faced. The investigating officer’s recommendations on this have been referred to the proper authorities for disposition. I cannot comment further on that part as that matter is under review.
Again, we did not intentionally strike the hospital, and we are absolutely heartbroken over what has happened here.
Q: What about an independent investigation?
GEN. SHOFFNER: The investigative team has completed a thorough investigation —
Q: I mean, an independent international investigation. MSF has called for it, and the investigation panel has been activated. The U.N. mandated procedures in this — in this situation when there’s a humanitarian problem. They’re ready to go but they need the Americans and the Afghans to say yes, and it seems that you have said no.
GEN. SHOFFNER: We believe the investigation completed was full and impartial, and we stand by the findings and recommendations, and we support the process by which it was conducted.
Q: Sorry. How can it be impartial when your commanding officer and your adjudicating officer and the people investigating are in the same organization as the people that attacked?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Again, General Campbell has decided to refer some of the recommendations to the commander of U.S. SOCOM for his review and action as appropriate.
CAPT. DAVIS: All right. Let’s go here to this gentleman.
Q: (off-mic). This is not the first time that U.S. airstrikes caused civilian casualties previously even the U.S. forces bombarded the ANA compound — (inaudible). How do the U.S. assure — (inaudible) — that will not occur again?
GEN. SHOFFNER: We’re determined to learn the right lessons from this and we’re committed to ensuring it doesn’t happen again. The civilian casualty assessment team process that I mentioned is part of this headquarters procedures whenever we have an indication of civilian casualties or an allegation of civilian casualties.
It provides us the means of looking into it very quickly to determine if further investigation is needed. If further investigation is needed, as it was in this case, that will be done and we’ll use that investigation as the basis for adjusting our systems and procedures so that this does not happen again.
We have time for one more question.
COL LAWHORN: (off-mic) Jessica?
Q: Afghan special forces are saying that they relayed to U.S. special forces that they were firing coming from the building, so when the building was hit, presumably Afghan forces would have seen whether the firing was continuing or not. So what kind of messaging was passed between the Afghan special forces and U.S. special forces at the time. And if they continued to report that there was firing from the building when in fact the wrong building had been attacked – can it be trusted as a partner when carrying on these kind of strikes?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well, I can tell you that the investigation found that U.S. Special Operations Forces commander did rely on information provided by the Afghan partners. The investigation also found that that information was correct. As I stated earlier, the investigation found that some of the U.S. individuals involved did violate the rules of engagement and we’ll take proper action on that —
Q: (off-mic) precautions, international humanitarian law that you have to take precautions with civilians. Was that also violated (off-mic) because it looks like your systems were not working. These systems were set up in order to protect civilians the — (inaudible).
GEN. SHOFFNER: The investigation found that — that the actions of the aircrew and the special operations commander were not appropriate to the threats that they faced. The investigating officers’ recommendations on this matter have been referred to the proper authorities for disposition and I won’t comment on that further.
That’s all the time I have for questions, but before I depart, I want to emphasize we made a terrible mistake that resulted in unnecessary deaths. We have been committed from the beginning to a transparent and thorough investigation, and we will do everything possible to prevent this from happening again. This investigation was an important step in this process, but it is just one step toward full accountability.
And finally, we would never, ever do anything to harm innocent civilians.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020