Hospital Bombing in Afghanistan Not a War Crime, Pentagon Says

A full report on the deadly hospital bombing in Afghanistan was released.

April 29, 2016, 1:23 PM

— -- The Pentagon today released a 3,000-page report on the investigation into a deadly U.S. airstrike last October that obliterated a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 42 people and wounding dozens more. As a result of the investigation, 16 military service members received administrative punishments that could affect their future status in uniform.

Military investigators concluded the ground operators and crew aboard an AC-130U gunship were unaware they were firing on a medical facility.

Gen. Jospeh Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, said at a Pentagon briefing Friday that the incident resulted from "a combination of human errors compounded by process and equipment failures."

The Oct. 3 attack drew outrage from Doctors Without Borders, which called the strike a war crime. Both President Obama and Afghanistan officials publicly apologized for the attack.

The investigation determined that because there was no "intent" to hit a medical facility, the mistakes committed did not amount to a war crime.

"The fact that this was an unintentional action takes it out of the realm of actually being a deliberate war crime against persons or protected locations," Votel said.

A two-star general officer was among the 16 military personnel punished for the attack. Seven received letters of reprimand while others received counseling and retraining. Although no criminal charges will be filed, the punishments could effectively end the military careers for most of the service members involved.

According to U.S. officials, the majority of military personnel involved were U.S. special operations forces. Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the time, decided on administrative actions against 12 of the 16 service members, including the general. Campbell referred the cases of five service members to U.S. Special Operations Command, then headed by Votel, who decided on the punishments for the three officers aboard the plane and the ground force commander who called in an airstrike. The case of the remaining enlisted service member was forwarded to U.S. Army Special Operations Command that issued a letter of reprimand and directed retraining.

The attack on the Doctors Without Borders hospital, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), took place on Oct. 3 during a campaign to retake the city of Kunduz from Taliban forces.

PHOTO: U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command, briefs the media at the Pentagon April 29, 2016 about the investigation of the airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan on October 3, 2015.
U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command, briefs the media at the Pentagon April 29, 2016 about the investigation of the airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan on October 3, 2015.
Yuri Gripas/REUTERS

Votel said the special operations team that called the airstrike was engaged in "an extraordinarily intense combat situation" while supporting Afghan security forces fighting Taliban fighters. The team called in an airstrike on Taliban fighters.

The building in question turned out to be the MSF trauma center whose coordinates were included on the U.S.'s no-strike list. Because of the combat situation in Kunduz, the AC-130 was rushed into service and the flight crew was not given the latest no-strike information.

Votel said the crew of the gunship and the ground force commander believed they were striking a building several hundred meters away that housed insurgents.

MSF immediately reported to the military that it was attacking a protected hospital. Votel said today that the first call was received 10 minutes into the half-hour long attack, but that the information "did not immediately register" with the person taking the call.

After receiving the report, MSF released a statement calling again for an independent investigation from the International Humanitarian Fact Finding Commission.

“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, MSF 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 continued. “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.”

As a result of the incident, changes were instituted by senior commanders in Afghanistan ensuring that all aircraft take flight with the latest no-strike list. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has also issued a directive that all commands and services review their rules of engagement for similar situations in the future.

The Department of Defense has made condolence payments to more than 170 individuals affected by the attack. Those injured in the attack and families of the deceased received payments of $3,000 and families of those killed received $6,000. The Defense Department will allocate $5.7 million to build a new hospital in the same area.

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