The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said the accidental attack on a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Afghanistan was not a war crime because it was unintentional.
U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel briefed reporters Friday on the 3,000 pages worth of findings resulting from the investigation on the Oct. 3 attack which killed 42. The investigation included 65 witness testimonies and was conducted by military investigators from outside Afghanistan. According to Votel, the strike was the result of both equipment and human error. The military has disciplined 16 personnel involved in the attack, including a general officer.
“This I will highlight to you was an extreme situation,” said Votel in his remarks. He explained the personnel involved in the incident “were doing a variety of actions at the same time — they were trying to support their Afghan partners, they were trying to execute resupply operations and they were trying to protect themselves.”
Votel noted some of the individuals involved “failed to comply” with rules of engagement, but their actions did not amount to a war crime.
The incident began after Taliban forces seized the city of Kunduz last year. In response, Afghan Armed Forces (AAF) engaged in a firefight with the Taliban in an attempt to retake the city. A team of U.S. Special Forces personnel were sent to bolster the AAF attack, which would last for over four days.
On the fifth day, an AC-130 Gunship was called in by the U.S. commander in Kunduz to provide close-air support for the units. According to Votel, the commander had the authority to call in the gunship in situations of self-defense. He noted the Special Forces and AAF were under attack at the time the strike was being called in.
Equipment problems resulted almost immediately after the strike was called in, with the gunship crew’s communications equipment going out, ceasing their ability to receive updates on the situation. Once the aircraft arrived over Kunduz, it was targeted by a surface-to-air missile, forcing it to escape to an area farther from the battlefield.
The AAF provided Special Forces counterparts with coordinates for the intended building strike, which ended up being an empty field. The flight crew then attempted to visually ascertain the target building, which was similar to the MSF hospital. Votel confirmed the U.S. forces on the ground, including the Joint Tactical Air Controller who was in charge of the aistrike. Believing they had found the target, the air crew began firing on the hospital at 2:08 a.m. Though the hospital was on what is referred to as a “no-strike list,” the air crew did not have access to it.
The U.S. was informed of the mistaken attack by MSF approximately 10 minutes after firing began, 20 minutes later the air crew was told of the mistake, immediately ceasing fire.
The punishments given to the 16 personnel are considered largely administrative, and include counseling, transfers and letters of reprimand.
Victims and their families have been paid $6,000 for each death and $3,000 for each injury resulting from the attack.
Votel was able to confirm that “U.S. air power had no role” in a similar attack on an MSF hospital in Aleppo, Syria Thursday which has reportedly killed dozens of people.
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