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Pentagon disciplines 16 for deadly attack on Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan

The Pentagon has disciplined 16 service members for mistakes that led to the deadly airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in northern Afghanistan last fall, but no one will face criminal charges, The Times has learned.

One officer was suspended from command and ordered out of Afghanistan. The others were given lesser punishments: Six were sent to counseling, seven were issued letters of reprimand, and two were ordered to retraining courses.

The punishments follow a six-month Pentagon investigation of the disastrous Oct. 3 attack, which killed 42 medical workers, patients and other Afghans and wounded dozens more at the international humanitarian aid group's trauma center in Kunduz.

The 16 found at fault include a two-star general, the crew of an Air Force AC-130 gunship, and Army special forces personnel, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal investigation.

Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, is expected to announce the administrative actions Friday at the Pentagon. He will not release names of the 16 because some are overseas or in units that are regularly deployed.

Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, will post more than 3,000 pages of a redacted investigative report on its website after Votel appears.

Doctors Without Borders, also known as MSF for its French name, Medecins Sans Frontieres, is based in Geneva and has won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work in war zones and during epidemics.

It has described the attack on the clearly marked medical facility as a likely war crime. The incident generated an outcry from international aid groups, some of which demanded criminal prosecution.

“The gravity of harm caused by the reported failures to follow protocol in Kunduz appears to constitute gross negligence that warrants active pursuit of criminal liability,” Donna McKay, executive director of the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights, wrote in a letter to the White House and Pentagon on Monday.

In a statement Thursday, Amnesty International said it had “serious concerns” about the Pentagon’s “questionable track record of policing itself.” It called for an independent investigation to determine what happened and “to assess potential criminal wrongdoing.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday that he doesn’t think President Obama has been told the results of the Pentagon investigation. Earnest said he would not prejudge the outcome but “accountability is important and that’s something that was communicated to the military leadership.”

The Pentagon has acknowledged that Doctors Without Borders representatives had reminded U.S. and Afghan officials of the hospital's precise location repeatedly before the airstrike because of fighting in the area. The facility was on the military’s list of prohibited targets.

Officials said last fall that the AC-130 gunship crew believed they were targeting a building about 300 yards away where several Taliban fighters were supposedly hiding. Less clear is why they continued to strafe the hospital for nearly an hour while aid officials in Kabul and Washington made frantic attempts to call them off.

At least 15 calls and text messages were exchanged with U.S., Afghan, United Nations and Red Cross officials, records show.

The attack destroyed the hospital’s main building, including an emergency room, intensive care unit and operating theater. The dead consisted of 24 patients, 14 staff members and four caretakers.

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Survivors described earth-shaking explosions that engulfed the building in flames. Some patients burned to death in their beds.

Gen. John F. Campbell, then-commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in November that the “cause of this tragedy was … avoidable human error, compounded by process and equipment failures.”

Campbell said decisions on whether to prosecute anyone would be made by him and the U.S. Special Operations Command, where Votel was commander before he was assigned to Central Command.

Campbell, who retired last month, ordered discipline for 12 of the 16 personnel involved. He suspended an officer, issued three letters of reprimand, ordered six into counseling and sent two to retraining courses.

Votel issued four letters of reprimand and suspended the AC-130 aircrew from performing flight operations until they passed a flight evaluation board, which will determine when they can return to service.

The attack was launched as U.S. warplanes, backed by special operations troops, were assisting Afghan forces fighting to retake Kunduz from the Taliban, which had captured the city five days earlier.

Aid officials have said that no gunfire was coming from the hospital compound and that although firefights had occurred nearby earlier in the day, no fighting was underway when the airstrike occurred.

Tim Shenk, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders, said Wednesday that the aid organization would not comment on the punishments until the military publicly released its investigation.

The Pentagon is expected to brief the group before Votel speaks to the news media on Friday.

Shortly after he replaced Campbell as commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson met with representatives of Doctors Without Borders, family members of victims and community leaders in Kunduz on March 23 and offered a personal apology.

“As commander, I wanted to come to Kunduz personally and stand before the families and people of Kunduz to deeply apologize for the events which destroyed the hospital and caused the deaths of the hospital staff, patients and family members,” he said. “I grieve with you for your loss and suffering, and humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness.”

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

3:10 p.m.: Updated with a comment from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

3:01 p.m.: Updated with a statement from Amnesty International.

This article was first published at 10:05 a.m.

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