'Human Error' Cited in Mistaken US Airstrike on Kunduz Hospital

Suspensions and possible discipline follow U.S. investigation.

ByABC News
November 25, 2015, 2:41 PM

— -- The top U.S. general in Afghanistan says the military investigation into the mistaken airstrike of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz was "a tragic but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error."

Gen. John Campbell told reporters today that the crew of an AC-130 gunship struck the hospital, mistaking it for another building a several hundred meters away that had been taken over by the Taliban. Campbell said some of the individuals involved in the accident have been suspended from their duties and referred for possible disciplinary action.

"We failed to meet our own high expectations," Campbell said in releasing the findings of a 3,000-page investigation conducted by an official not under his command, U.S. Army Major Gen. William Hickman. The mistaken airstrike killed 30 and injured 37 doctors and patients at the Doctors Without Borders hospital.

The investigation determined that the airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders trauma center "was a direct result of human error compounded by systems and signals failure."

Campbell said the crew aboard the AC-130 gunship "believed they were striking a different building several hundred meters away where there were reports of insurgents."

"Those who called and conducted the strike did not take procedures to verify this was a legitimate target," Campbell said.

"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," he said.

It was unclear how many service members had been suspended from duty.

An Afghan special operations unit had requested an airstrike on a building taken over by the Taliban that housed the National Directorate Service (NDS), Afghanistan's intelligence service.

The crew aboard the AC-130 had initially been scrambled to assist ground forces engaged in combat at another location, which meant they did not receive a pre-flight briefing that would have indicated that the hospital was on a no-strike list.

When that combat situation ended quickly, the AC-130 was redirected to assist with the airstrike requested by the Afghan forces and communicated to them by U.S. special operations forces serving with them.

The aircraft's crew was also limited by technical malfunctions that prevented the transmission of videos or text communications back to its headquarters at Bagram Airfield.

Believing they had earlier been targeted by a missile, the crew of the AC-130 pulled 8 miles away, a distance that "degraded the accuracy of certain targeting systems which contributed to the misidentification of the trauma center," Campbell said.

When the aircrew input the coordinates of the NDS building into their targeting system, they saw an empty field located about 330 yards away from the target.

The crew of the AC-130 then used visual descriptions provided by the Afghan forces to visually identify a building near the field that they believed to be the NDS compound but was, in fact, the Doctors Without Borders hospital. As the plane moved in closer, a GPS system properly located the NDS building, but Campbell said the crew "remained fixated on the physical description of the facility" provided by the ground forces.

A minute prior to the airstrike, the crew of the AC-130 communicated the coordinates to its headquarters at Bagram Airfield, which did not realize the location matched a no-strike list location. Campbell said the "confusion was exacerbated" by the aircraft's inability to transmit video and electronic feeds back to the headquarters.

Doctors Without Borders notified the headquarters at Bagram 12 minutes after the airstrike began that their facility was under attack. By the time headquarters personnel had verified the "fatal mistake" 17 minutes later, the 29-minute airstrike had concluded.

Those involved in the airstrike "did not follow the rules of engagement," Brigadier Gen. Wilson Shoffner, the top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, told reporters at a briefing to release the investigation's finding.

Campbell said the U.S. special operations commander in Kunduz did not have the authority to direct the airstrike on the NDS building.

Added Shoffner: "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."

"We did not intentionally strike the hospital, we are absolutely heartbroken," he said, adding the U.S. military in Afghanistan will ensure "it does not happen again."

Responding to the U.S. military investigation's findings, Christopher Stokes, general director of Doctors Without Borders, said, "The U.S. version of events presented today leaves MSF with more questions than answers. It is shocking that an attack can be carried out when U.S. forces have neither eyes on a target nor access to a no-strike list, and have malfunctioning communications systems."

"The frightening catalog of errors outlined today illustrates gross negligence on the part of U.S. forces and violations of the rules of war," Stokes added.

He reiterated the organization's call for an independent investigation into the airstrike.