KUNDUZ– A US aircraft attacked a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic in the Afghan city of Kunduz because of “human error”, a US military inquiry said.
The investigation found that the crew of the AC-130 gunship mistook the clinic for a nearby government building that had been seized by Taliban.
At least 30 civilians were killed in the 3 October attack, amid a campaign to retake Kunduz from Taliban forces.
MSF said the report demonstrates “gross negligence” by the US military.
The group said the incident constituted “violations of the rules of war” and reiterated calls for an “independent and impartial investigation into the attack”.
Shortly after the incident, the medical charity disputed initial US justifications for the attack, which said US forces had struck the hospital because they had come under fire in the area.
The US military later admitted that the strike was a mistake and launched an investigation.
On Wednesday, the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen John Campbell, said the investigation had found that the attack on the hospital was “the direct result of avoidable human error, compounded by process and equipment failures”.
He said that the crew of the AC-130 plane believed the building was a government compound, the NDS (or National Directorate of Security), which had been taken over by Taliban militants.
The report catalogues a perfect storm of errors, at every level of the operation.
The most extraordinary admission was that military personnel failed to pick up on indicators the aircraft crew was shelling the wrong building, even though the target co-ordinates it transmitted to headquarters were clearly those of the MSF hospital.
Gen Campbell said he had ordered immediate changes to address the failures, but the long and detailed list of mistakes will prompt questions as to how often wrong targets have been struck before – without a group like MSF to raise the red flag – and whether something like this could happen again.
This is especially the case as the general noted that fatigue and the high tempo of operations in Kunduz contributed to the tragedy.
The fact that the crew thought it was hitting a Taliban command centre explains MSF’s contention that the operation was conducted with a purpose to kill and destroy.
But predictably the report does nothing to address its accusation of war crimes: a military spokesman refused to talk about laws of war, saying only that the operation had violated US rules of engagement.
The aircraft identified the building based on a visual description provided by Afghan forces, he said, and did not refer to co-ordinates provided by MSF that were included on a no-strike list.
“Tragically this misidentification continued throughout the remainder of the operation, even though there were some contradictory indicators,” he said.
“This was a tragic mistake. US forces would
never intentionally strike a hospital or other protected facilities.”
The gunship fired 211 shells at the MSF compound over 25 minutes, the US military said.
MSF General Director Christopher Stokes said today: “It appears that 30 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of people are being denied life-saving care in Kunduz simply because the MSF hospital was the closest large building to an open field and ‘roughly matched’ a description of an intended target.”
An MSF report released earlier this month said its staff contacted US-led forces several times during the attack, saying they were being bombed.
Gen Campbell said other factors that contributed to the mistake included:
“Fatigue and high operational tempo” endured by the troops; the loss of electronics communications systems on the aircraft; the nature of the “planning and approvals process for operations” in Kunduz; the absence of a single system to check targets for attack against the no-strike list; the US military said the troops involved in the attack had been suspended, and were awaiting disciplinary action.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani today described the incident as a “painful demonstration of the cost of war”.
“Such mistakes can and should be avoided,” he said in a statement.