Pentagon: No war crimes were committed in US bombing of Afghan hospital

Pentagon: No war crimes were committed in US bombing of Afghan hospital
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The U.S. military has concluded that no war crimes were committed by those involved in the bombing of a charity hospital in northern Afghanistan last year.

"The label 'war crimes' is typically reserved for intentional acts – intentionally targeting civilians or intentionally targeting protected objects," Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said at a briefing.   

"The investigation concluded that the personnel involved did not know that they were striking a medical facility," he said. "The intended target was an insurgent-controlled site which was approximately 400 meters away from the MSF Trauma Center." 

Votel also said the investigation found that although some insurgents were treated at the hospital, it was not being used as a "base for operations,” as some have speculated. 

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The Oct. 3 strike killed 42 people and injured 229, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, which was running the hospital in the city of Kunduz. 

But the investigation did identify 16 U.S. service members whose conduct "warranted consideration for appropriate administrative or disciplinary action," including a general officer, according to a Centcom summary of the investigation. 

Then-commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Campbell, who is now retired, took action against 12 of the 16, including suspension, removal from command, letters of reprimand, formal counseling, and extensive retraining. 

The other four, as well as the general officer, were sent out of Afghanistan and referred to Votel, who was then the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. Votel wrote four letters of reprimand and admonishment and ordered boards to evaluate the flight certification of three aircrew members. 

One service member was referred to the commander of Army Special Operations Command, which issued a letter of reprimand and directed he undergo job recertification.

The service members’ names will not be released, Votel said.  

"It is important to point out that these adverse administrative actions can carry severe repercussions on the careers and professional qualifications of these individuals that could include denial of promotion or advancement … and possible separation from the service," Votel said.

Votel said the disciplinary actions were "appropriate" in light of the unintentional nature of the bombing and other mitigating factors, such as the intense combat situation and equipment failures that affected the mission.  

Overall, the investigation concluded that a combination of human errors, including poor communication, coordination and situational awareness, and process and equipment failures were responsible for the bombing.

The investigation found that on Oct. 2, Afghan forces decided to attack an insurgent-controlled site and requested air support from the U.S. Special Forces on the ground there.

The aircraft crew of the AC-130 gunship launched 69 minutes earlier than planned due to an emergency call and could not receive all the normal information before the mission began. Additionally, a critical communications system on the aircraft failed, rendering it unable to receive updates from multiple command headquarters, the investigation found.

The aircraft came under fire by a surface-to-air missile after arriving in the area and had to take defensive measures that degraded its ability to locate ground targets, the investigation found.  

Coordinates provided to the crew led to an open airfield instead of the insurgent-controlled site. After then trying to identify the right target, the aircrew misidentified the correct site for the nearby hospital and began firing.

"Following several attempts to clarify which structure was the actual target requested,” the aircrew directed its weapons on the hospital, which "generally matched the general physical description of the Taliban-controlled target structure which was approximately 400 meters away," the report said.  

Votel stressed several times at the briefing that U.S. forces deployed to Kunduz to support Afghan troops were engaged in four consecutive days of heavy combat with Taliban forces who had overrun the city and were fatigued, contributing to the incident.

"These factors contributed to the 'fog of war,' which is the uncertainty often encountered during combat operations," he said. 

After Votel's briefing, Doctors Without Borders continued to call for an "independent and impartial" investigation and said it did not matter whether the bombing was "intentional" or not.  

“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,” said Meinie Nicolai, the organization’s president. “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 said. 

“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.”

Nicolai also said the administrative punishments are "out of proportion" to the destruction of the facility, the deaths of 42 people, including 14 staff members, and the wounding of dozens others. 

The investigation summary said the U.S. military has made 170 condolence payments and will spend $5.7 million to rebuild the hospital.