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US officials suspended for Afghan hospital bombing that killed 30

US officials suspended for Afghan hospital bombing that killed 30

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Wednesday announced that multiple officials had been suspended for the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital that killed 30, saying the airstrike was "caused primarily by human error." 

"We failed to meet our own high expectations on Oct. 3," said Army Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, during a press conference on the U.S. investigation into the bombing.

"This was a tragic but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error," he said.

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Campbell said that those who were most closely involved in the bombing in Kunduz have been suspended, though he declined to give their number, names or ranks.

The general listed a number of individual decisions that led to the U.S. strike that killed 30 hospital staff and patients and wounded 37 more. He also listed a number of breakdowns in procedures and systems meant to guard against civilian casualties, as well as electronic and communications failures. 

But Campbell and a spokesman, Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, said the bombing was not intentional and officials were "heartbroken" over the loss of innocent life. 

The investigation also revealed that U.S. special operations forces who were assisting Afghan forces in retaking the city from the Taliban during the time of the incident were engaged in five days of heavy combat.

Campbell said U.S. special operations forces and Afghan counterparts were deployed to a camp adjacent to an airfield in Kunduz on Sept. 29. The forces defended the airfield from a Taliban attack through Sept. 30. 

U.S. and Afghan forces then moved into the city, to a provincial chief of police's compound, Campbell said. During that time, the forces "repelled heavy and sustained enemy attacks and conducted multiple defensive strikes in Kunduz," he added. 

By Oct. 3, U.S. special operations forces "had been engaged in heavy fighting for nearly five consecutive days and nights," he said. 

The night before the bombing, Afghan forces told a U.S. special operations commander at the compound that they intended to clear an Afghan government building they believed was taken over by the Taliban. 

The Afghan forces requested U.S. close air support for the operation. The commander monitored the operation from the police compound. 

Campbell said the AC-130 gunship providing close air support launched 69 minutes earlier than intended, in response to a different "troops in contact" situation.

This meant the crew launched before they could conduct a normal mission brief that could have reviewed "no-strike" designated buildings, including the hospital.

The AC-130 was then diverted back to its original mission of providing close air support to the Afghan forces. During the flight, the electronic systems onboard the aircraft malfunctioned. Furthermore, the aircrew believed they were targeted by a missile, and steered eight miles from their mission area. 

The U.S. commander, through his joint terminal attack controller (JTAC), provided the aircraft with the correct coordinates of the government building. When the aircrew entered those coordinates into their fire control systems, the coordinates correlated to an open field over 300 meters from the building due to the aircraft being off course, and a degradation of its sensors.

The aircrew "visually located the closest, largest building" to the open field, which was the Doctors Without Borders hospital, Campbell said. The hospital "roughly matched" the description of the original target, he added. The aircrew was unable, at night, to "identify any signs of the hospital's protected status." 

The commander asked the aircraft to strike the building. The report found that under the circumstances, the commander "lacked the authority to direct the aircrew to engage the facility." He relied primarily on information provided by Afghan partners and was unable to distinguish between the intended target and the hospital. 

And although the coordinates of the target were relayed back to a headquarters at Bagram, those at the headquarters did not realize they matched the hospital's coordinates. 

The strike, which lasted for about 29 minute, began at 2:08 a.m. local time. Doctors Without Borders reached an official at Bagram at 2:20 a.m., but it took an additional 17 minutes, until 2:37 a.m., "to realize the fatal mistake," Campbell said. 

Campbell called the fact-finding investigation, carried out by the U.S. military officers outside of the command, "thorough and unbiased." 

However, Doctors Without Borders is pressing for an independent investigation of the incident.

The leaders of the House Armed Services Committee, Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and ranking member Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithTrump rails against Twitter in late night tweets The pandemic and a 'rainy day fund' for American charity House Democrat accuses Air Force of attempting to influence Georgia runoff races MORE (D-Wash.), in a statement, said they appreciated Campbell's "candor with us as he examines what went wrong in Kunduz."

"It is clear that process failures on multiple levels were involved. We will continue to oversee the investigation as it proceeds, and work closely with our forces in Afghanistan to ensure this tragedy is not repeated," they said. 

This story was updated at 12:56 p.m.