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Campbell: Kunduz Hospital Attack ‘Tragic, Avoidable Accident’

By Jim Garamone DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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WASHINGTON, November 25, 2015 — Human error, procedural missteps and technical failures contributed to the attack on a Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on Oct. 3, Army Gen. John F. Campbell said in Kabul today.

Speaking via teleconference, the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission and U.S. Forces - Afghanistan briefed the press on the results of the U.S. investigation into the incident that left 30 people dead and 37 wounded.

“This was a tragic, but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error,” the general said.

Campbell also put the incident into context, noting that Afghan troops in Kunduz -- supported by U.S. special operations forces --had been under heavy Taliban attack for five days and nights.

The independent report determined that the U.S. attack on the trauma center was the direct result of human error, compounded by systems and procedural failures. “The U.S. forces directly involved in this incident did not know the targeted compound was the [Doctors Without Borders] trauma center,” Campbell said. “The medical facility was misidentified as a target by U.S. personnel who believed they were striking a different building several hundred meters away where there were reports of combatants.”

The report also determined that the personnel who requested the strike and those who executed it from the air did not undertake the appropriate measures to verify that the facility was a legitimate military target, Campbell said.

Incident Timeline

On Oct. 2, Afghan special operations forces advised their U.S. support that they intended to conduct a clearing operation that night, the general said. One of the mission objectives was to clear the National Directorate of Security headquarters building they believed was occupied by insurgents. “The Afghans requested U.S. close-air support as they conducted their clearing operation,” he said.

The investigation found that multiple errors occurred from this point forward, ultimately resulting in the misidentification of the trauma center and the subsequent airstrike, the general said.

The AC-130 aircraft designated to provide close-air support launched 69 minutes early in response to a “troops-in contact situation” -- an emergency that requires an immediate response, Campbell said. This precluded the crew from receiving their normal mission brief or securing crucial mission-essential related materials, including the no-strike designations which would have identified the location of the trauma center, he said.

After takeoff, the crew was waved off the initial mission and diverted to provide close-air support in Kunduz. “During the flight, the electronic systems onboard the aircraft malfunctioned, preventing the operation of an essential command and control capability and eliminating the ability of aircraft to transmit video, send and receive e-mail or send and receive electronic messages,” Campbell said.

Degraded Sensors

As the aircraft arrived on station, the crew believed they were targeted by a missile, forcing the aircraft to move farther away. “This degraded the accuracy of certain targeting systems which later contributed to the misidentification of the [Doctors Without Borders] trauma center,” the general said.

The American special operations forces commander provided the aircraft with the correct coordinates to the NDS headquarters building -- the Afghans’ intended target, he said.

“But when the aircrew entered the coordinates into their fire control systems, the coordinates correlated to an open field over 300 meters from the NDS headquarters,” Campbell said. “This mistake happened because the aircraft was several miles beyond its normal orbit and its sensors were degraded at that distance. The investigating officer found that the aircrew visually located the closest, largest building near the open field, which we now know was the [Doctors Without Borders] trauma center.”

The physical description of the NDS headquarters building roughly matched the description of the trauma center as seen by the aircrew. “At night, the aircrew was unable to identify any signs of the hospital’s protected status,” the general said. “Tragically, this misidentification continued throughout the remainder of the operation.”

Missed Opportunities

There were chances to catch the mistake, he said. Once the aircraft returned to its original orbit, the aircraft’s grid location system correctly aligned with the NDS facility instead of the open field. Also, investigators found that the aircrew did not observe hostile activity at the trauma center, Campbell said.

As the Afghan operation proceeded, he said, the U.S. commander requested the aircraft to engage a building that the aircrew mistakenly believed was the NDS headquarters.

“The report found that, under the circumstances, the U.S. SOF commander lacked the authority to direct the aircrew to engage the facility,” the general said. “The investigation also found that the U.S. SOF commander relied primarily upon information provided by Afghan partners and was unable to adequately distinguish between the NDS headquarters building and the ... trauma center.”

Another chance to catch the mistake was missed when the aircrew transmitted to their operational headquarters at Bagram Airfield that they were about to engage the building. “They provided the coordinates for the [Doctors Without Borders] trauma center as their target,” the general said. “The headquarters was aware of the coordinates for the ... trauma center and had access to the no-strike list, but did not realize that the grid coordinates for the target matched a location on the no-strike list or that the aircrew was preparing to fire on the hospital.”

The strike began at 2:08 a.m., according to the report. At 2:20 a.m., a special operations forces officer at Bagram received a call from Doctors Without Borders saying their facility in Kunduz was under attack. “It took the headquarters and the U.S. special operations commander until 2:37 a.m. to realize the fatal mistake,” Campbell said. “At that time, the AC-130 had already ceased firing. The strike lasted for approximately 29 minutes.”

The report determined that the approximate cause of this tragedy was a direct result of avoidable human error compounded by process and equipment failures. “In addition, the report found that fatigue and high operation tempo contributed to this tragedy,” the general said.

The command has taken the lessons of this tragic incident to heart and put in place corrective measures, Campbell said.

The command will “also take appropriate administrative and disciplinary action through a process that is fair and thoroughly considers the available evidence,” the general said.

This is just the first report of the incident. A NATO and Afghan partner combined civilian casualty assessment team also conducted an investigation.

(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)