A Pentagon investigation into a deadly U.S. airstrike at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in northern Afghanistan last fall has led to modifications in training and targeting procedures, officials said Friday.
Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told a Pentagon news conference that the U.S. military has reviewed its targeting procedures, updated equipment and trained 9,000 troops on how much force is appropriate.
The changes follow an internal investigation into the Oct. 3 attack by a U.S. AC-130 gunship at the humanitarian aid group’s trauma center in Kunduz.
The attack killed 42 medical staff, patients and other civilians in one of the worst such incidents involving U.S. forces since the war in Afghanistan began 15 years ago.
The Times reported Thursday that the Pentagon has disciplined 16 individuals for their roles in the mistaken attack, but no one will face criminal charges. One officer was suspended and the others faced counseling, retraining or letters of reprimand.
Votel pushed back against the Geneva-based aid group’s argument that the attack on a clearly-marked hospital violated international law and was a war crime.
Votel said the AC-130 crew did not know they were attacking a hospital, and thus they are not criminally liable. The crew believed they were targeting another building about 300 yards away where Taliban fighters supposedly were hiding.
“The legal interpretation and our understanding of this, 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. “So that is the principal reason why we do not consider this to be a war crime.”
He said human errors, process mistakes and equipment failures were to blame.
Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, posted more than 3,000 pages of the final, redacted investigative report on its website Friday.
Investigators visited the hospital ruins and several other sites in Kunduz, according to the report. They interviewed scores of witnesses and survivors, including trauma center staff, U.S. and Afghan ground forces, the AC-130 crew, and Afghan commanders.
Votel briefed Doctors Without Borders representatives on Thursday. In response, the group reiterated its long-standing demand for an independent inquiry.
Doctors Without Borders, also known as MSF for its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières, wants the Pentagon to allow the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, which is mandated by the Geneva Conventions to investigate apparent violations of international humanitarian law, to conduct an investigation.
“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,” Meinie Nicolai, president of the aid agency, said in a statement. “It is incomprehensible that, under the circumstances described by the U.S., the attack was not called off.”
The final investigation largely confirmed the account that Pentagon officials provided last November.
The airstrike was launched as U.S. special operations troops tried to help Afghan forces retake Kunduz from the Taliban, which had captured the city five days earlier.
“The [J.S.] ground force commander made the decision to conduct the strike under self-defense authority, because he considered himself and by extension, the Afghan forces that were in his proximity and that he was supporting, as part of his force,” Votel said.
The AC-130 crew sought to attack a building that the militants had used to fire at Afghan forces. But a faulty onboard targeting system identified the coordinates as an open field. The crew opened fire instead on a nearby large building, based on a visual description.
The gunship had been diverted from another mission, so the crew did not know the hospital was a quarter-mile from the alleged Taliban-controlled site, investigators found. Nor did they know that its location was on an official U.S. no-strike list.
Because of the confusion, Votel said, U.S. officials didn’t initially respond when representatives from the aid group repeatedly and frantically called U.S. military headquarters at Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul, to urge them to call off the attack.
“What the investigation established was that at about 10 minutes into it, the Doctors Without Borders contacted one of our command centers and passed that information to us,” Votel said. “That went through a series of layers to get to the people on the ground. Frankly, the ground force commander was not tracking a medical facility, so when that information first got to him, that didn’t immediately register. So, it took a a few minutes to figure that out, that they actually were firing at it.”
As a result of the investigation, Votel said computers on U.S. warplanes will be pre-loaded with key information -- including the no-strike database -- to minimize potential miscommunications once the aircraft is aloft.
About 9,000 troops were given supplemental training in rules of engagement, he said. The training was completed in November.
Votel said the Pentagon has offered payments to more than 170 victims and victims’ families. He said they ranged from $3,000 to those wounded, to $6,000 to families of those killed.
In a statement, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter praised what he called “a thorough and transparent investigation,” which he said provided “important and painful lessons.”
“The U.S. military takes the greatest care in our operations to prevent the loss of innocent life,” he said. “When we make mistakes we must own up to them and hold individuals accountable as necessary.”