US General says Afghans requested Kunduz strike
WASHINGTON: The US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, said Monday that Afghan forces had requested the airstrike that destroyed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the c
ity of Kunduz, conceding that the military had incorrectly reported at first that the response was to protect US troops said to be under direct threat.
But Campbell’s response to criticism of the US airstrike during a brief news conference at the Pentagon did little to clarify the military’s initial claims that the strike had been an accident. Nor did it explain how an AC-130 gunship, a powerful and precise attack aircraft, killed 22 people, including patients and hospital staff members, during more than 30 minutes of firing on the hospital Saturday morning as Afghan forces fought to retake Kunduz from the Taliban.
Who called in the strike remained an open question, and the military itself appeared uncertain about whether any of the Afghan or US troops involved in the strike knew they were unleashing a sustained air attack on a hospital.
Nine months after President Barack Obama declared an end to the US war in Afghanistan, the airstrike has provided a tragic reminder that the United States is still very much involved in the conflict. And just as in past cases in which US aircraft killed Afghans, the military has again found itself struggling to explain why it ended up targeting civilians, not Taliban fighters, in an episode that is likely to help shape the debate about how large a force to keep there beyond this year. There are about 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and most are there to train and advise Afghan forces.
At his news conference, Campbell said Afghan forces had come under fire near the hospital and then called for help. “This is different from the initial reports which indicated that US forces were threatened and that the airstrike was called on their behalf,” he said.
He suggested that US advisers in Kunduz had a role in coordinating the strike after “the Afghans asked for air support from a Special Forces team that we have on the ground.” But when asked how close the Americans were to the scene of the fighting — in other words, whether they could see the target when the strike was called in — Campbell refused to answer, repeating that it would “come out in the investigation.”
The answer may well prove crucial. Investigators are looking at where exactly the US advisers were when the strike was called in, and whether they were relying solely on information from the Afghan forces, defense officials said.
When US combat operations formally ended last year, the Obama administration decided that US airstrikes and other firepower could be used only under certain conditions: to kill terrorist suspects, to protect US troops, and in response to requests for help from the Afghan military battling the Taliban.
The third category was the subject of the most intense debate, as officials worried that requests from the Afghans could drag US troops back into daily, open-ended combat. They decided that commanders ought to help only in battles that could significantly alter the military landscape in Afghanistan — such as the recent Taliban takeover of Kunduz.
Obama gave military commanders broad leeway to make their own judgments about when to authorize airstrikes, but required the Pentagon to compile a monthly report for the White House about all American combat actions, both unilateral and in tandem with Afghan forces.
Commanders were also given discretion about establishing procedures for the strikes, procedures that are now under scrutiny after Saturday’s airstrike on the hospital. One former military officer who served in Afghanistan said it would be highly unusual for an airstrike to be carried out without a US “tactical air controller” on the ground directing the bombs and missiles to their targets.
Pentagon officials said it appears increasingly certain that the aircraft that hit the hospital was called in to carry out the strike, and that this was not a case of bad coordinates from troops on the ground or the pilots hitting the wrong building. In fact, the fire from the AC-130 appears to have been so accurate that only the hospital building itself was hit, and not residential buildings in the same cramped Doctors Without Borders compound, said one of the officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a continuing investigation.
The investigators are also trying to determine why the attack lasted as long as it did. Doctors Without Borders said its staff in Kabul and Washington repeatedly called the military to tell them that the aircraft was firing on a hospital, but the message either went unheeded or did not get through to commanders with the power to stop the attack.
In an apparent attempt to justify the strike, Afghan officials have begun saying there were Taliban insurgents on the south side of the hospital. But Doctors Without Borders has insisted there was no fighting around the hospital at the time of the strike, and that it had sent the US military the precise coordinates of its hospital days before the strike.
Campbell, for his part, was unequivocal when asked Monday what the rules were on striking a hospital. “Very broadly, we do not strike those kind of targets, absolutely,” he said.
After the news conference, Doctors Without Borders, which said Sunday that it was pulling its operation out of Kunduz, released a statement calling for an independent investigation, and criticizing the shifting American accounts. The military’s “description of the attack keeps changing — from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government,” Christopher Stokes, general director of Doctors Without Borders, said in the statement.
“The reality is the US dropped those bombs. The US hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff,” his statement continued, referring to the group by the initials of its French name, Medecins Sans Frontieres. “The US military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack.”
Six years ago, Kunduz was the site of another devastating NATO airstrike that killed civilians and added to a growing anger among Afghan officials about such attacks. That airstrike, which was called in by German NATO personnel in September 2009 after NATO fuel tankers came under Taliban attack near the city, killed 142 people, most of them civilians.
The outcry over the strike, and evidence of a cover-up by German officials, led to the ouster of the German defense minister and the country’s top military officer. And it intensified outrage over a growing civilian toll from NATO and US airstrikes that forced US commanders to sharply limit the condition under which air power could be used.