US Military Wrongly ID’d Kunduz Hospital That Lacked Proper Markings

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Military equipment breakdowns and human blunders led crew members of a U.S. Air Force AC-130 to mistake the 140-bed hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders for the former Afghan National Director of Security headquarters building in Kunduz during an Oct. 3 attack.

“At night, the air crew was unable to identify any signs of the hospital’s protected status,” said Army Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, Wednesday during a teleconference briefing from Kabul.

Thirty patients and medical personnel died in the attack on the facility that was operated by the international group that is also known as Medicins Sans Frontiers.

The attack occurred during a U.S.-Afghan assault to retake the Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz against Taliban insurgents who had seized the city on September 28.  The fall of the city was a great embarrassment to the central government in Kabul.

The physical description of the NDS headquarters building provided by the Afghan forces to the U.S commander on the ground “roughly matched the description of the MSF trauma center as seen by the air crew,” Campbell said.

“According to the report the air crew concluded, based on the description of a large building near a field, that the MSF trauma center was the NDS headquarters.  Tragically, this misidentification continued through the remainder of the operation,” he told reporters.

Campbell added “the crew remained fixated on the physical description of the facility.”  The general said the military personnel involved in the attack had been removed from their posts and that disciplinary measures had begun.

Another military briefer who followed Campbell’s address declined to respond when asked if U.S. officials will refer the matter to a Swiss-based international organization for “war crimes,” as requested by the medical group.

The International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission favored by Doctors without Borders has never ruled on any international issue since its creation in 1991. The U.S. and Afghan governments have never recognized its authority.

Campbell also hinted that Doctors With Borders should share part of the responsibility for the attack as the building lacked any internationally recognized roof markings identifying it as a hospital, as reported previously by the Daily Caller News Foundation here and here.

Campbell confirmed Wednesday that there were no outward markings on the hospital that could have told the pilot and crew that the building was a “protected” hospital and was on a military “no strike” list.

The general’s statement reaffirms the notion that the hospital’s operators should have displayed at least one of the internationally recognized emblems of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent or the Red Lion.

The Geneva Convention of 1949, International Humanitarian Law and an unusual joint 1990 statement by the International Committee for the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Movement require all hospital staff to clearly mark their hospitals and medical clinics in war zones.

Campbell indicated that beyond the misidentification of the building, the entire U.S. Air Force operation was plagued by a stunning number of technical breakdowns aboard the aircraft, and human mistakes made by an unknown number of military people up and down the U.S. command structure.

The aircraft left without a normal “mission brief,” including a briefing on ‘no strike’ designations, which would have identified the location of the hospital.

The AC-130 aircraft’s entire electronic system also broke down, curtailing much of the communications between the crew and the command.

“This degraded the accuracy of certain targeting systems, which later contributed to the misidentification of the MSF  trauma center,” the general said.

“During the flight, the electronic systems on board the aircraft malfunctioned, preventing the operation of an essential command control capability and eliminating the ability of the aircraft to transmit video, send and receive emails or send and receive electronic messages.  This is an example of technical failure,” Campbell said.

As it arrived into Kunduz, the aircraft crew also was targeted by an incoming Taliban surface-to-air missile, “forcing the aircraft to move away from its normal orbit to an orbit approximately 8 miles from the  mission area,” he said.

The strike on the hospital commenced at 2:08 am and at  2:20 am, Doctors Without Borders advised a military official that their trauma compound was under attack.  The commanders on the ground did not realize their fatal mistake until 2:37 am.  By then, the aircraft had ended its attack, which lasted for 29 minutes, according to the general.

“This is an example and process error,” he said.  “Based upon the information learned from the investigation, the report determined that the approximate cause of this tragedy was the direct result of avoidable human error, compounded by process and equipment failures.”

Campbell also said fatigue and a “high operational tempo contributed to this tragedy.”  U.S. and Afghan troops had been involved in the fighting to retake the provincial capital for five days.

“We have learned from this terrible incident.  We will also take appropriate administrative and disciplinary action through a process that is fair and thoroughly considers the available evidence,” the general said.

Campbell called the attack “a tragic mistake.  U.S. forces would never intentionally strike a hospital or other protected facilities.” The general said the U.S. military will offer assistance to rebuild the hospital.

A parallel NATO report on the attack is expected to be released within the next few days.

The Pentagon announced Oct. 11 that the U.S. government would make “condolence payments” to families of the victims even before the investigation into the attack got started.  President Obama apologized on October 7 in a phone call to Doctors Without Borders President Joanne Liu.

Ken Isaacs,  vice president for Smaritan’s Purse, another humanitarian organization that has operated in war zones including Afghanistan, told the DCNF that when war descends, rules are often the first casualty in the fog of war.

“There is the Geneva Convention.  There is International Humanitarian Law.  And there’s war.  And when wars happen, the rules don’t matter really.  They should.  But they don’t matter.  Things happen,” he said.

Doctors Without Borders was unsatisfied by the report.

“The U.S. version of events presented today leaves [DWB] 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 group said in a statement.

“It appears that 30 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of people are denied life-saving care in Kunduz simply because the MSF hospital was the closest large building to an open field and ‘roughly matched’ a description of an intended target.”

The group reiterated its call “for an independent and impartial investigation into the attack on our hospital in Kunduz. Investigations of this incident cannot be left solely to parties to the conflict in Afghanistan.”

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