A US airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan that killed at least 30 people in October was caused primarily by human error, the military reports. Disciplinary action has reportedly been taken.
The official US investigation into the deadly October 3 strike on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (known for its French abbreviation, MSF) in the Afghan city of Kunduz concluded it was an "avoidable accident," a top US military commander said. US Army General John Campbell called the incident a "tragic mistake," putting it down primarily to human error.
"The medical facility was misidentified as a target by US personnel who believed they were striking a different building several hundred meters away, where there were reports of combatants," Campbell said.
"US forces would never intentionally strike a hospital or other protected facilities," Campbell, the commander of international and US forces in Afghanistan, told reporters at NATO headquarters in Kabul. Campbell said that the individuals most closely associated with the incident had been suspended from their duty positions.
Campbell did not give any names or specify how many people had been suspended, but said that the affected individuals would be subject to investigation under military justice or administrative discipline systems. Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner said at the same press conference that some military personnel involved in the airstrike had violated standard US rules of engagement, saying that the US military was committed to ensuring full accountability while protecting the identities of those involved.
Almost 30 minutes of bombardment
The 3,000-page investigative file stated that US forces had originally intended to attack a nearby Taliban-controlled compound 450 yards (410 meters) away. The report said that the AC-130 gunship's crew had relied on location information relayed to them by US and Afghan special forces rather than using aircraft instruments.
Investigators found no evidence that the crew or the US Special Forces commander on the ground, who had authorized the strike, knew at the time of the assault that the targeted compound was a hospital. The gunship had fired 211 shells at the compound over a 29-minute period before commanders realized the mistake and ordered a halt.
The prolonged attack was condemned by MSF as a war crime. According to the US report, it killed at least 31 civilians, including 12 MSF staff, and injured 28 others. US President Barack Obama had already apologized for the bombing of the hospital and taken full responsibility, but MSF still called for an international humanitarian commission to investigate the attack. NATO and the Afghan army said they were also conducting their own investigations into the incident. General Campbell meanwhile has offered assistance to MSF to rebuild the hospital in Kunduz, which has since been abandoned and closed. He did not rule out further investigations into the incident.
"The personnel who requested the strike and those who executed it from the air did not undertake appropriate measures to verify that the facility was a legitimate military target," Campbell said during the press conference. He added that, in light of the review, changes to the protocols of engagement had been implemented.
Internal MSF investigation
MSF meanwhile has conducted its own investigation into the incident, with preliminary findings being leaked to the Associated Press news agency. Focusing on casualties, the MSF report reportedly found that several doctors and nurses had been killed immediately by the airstrikes, while patients who could not move burned to death in the ensuing fire. It added that people fleeing the main building were hit by gunfire that appeared to track their movements, while one patient trying to escape in a wheelchair was killed by shrapnel.
The MSF account of events added that hospital staff members had made 18 attempts to contact US and Afghan authorities before the bombardment stopped.
The event marked on of the worst incidents of civilian casualties in the 14-year history of the US war effort in Afghanistan.