The US personnel who bombarded a hospital in the Afghan city Kunduz last year and killed 42 people will not face war crimes charges, their commander said Friday.
The attack on the Doctors Without Borders trauma center triggered global outrage and forced President Barack Obama to make a rare apology on behalf of the US military still deployed in war-torn Afghanistan.
But General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, said an investigation has found the troops involved made a series of mistakes under the stress of battle and had targeted the facility by mistake.
This, he argued, does not add up to a war crime, and the 16 personnel found to have failed in their duties will face administrative suspensions or reprimands rather than courts martial.
“The investigation concluded that certain personnel failed to comply with the rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict,” he told reporters.
“The investigation found that the incident resulted from a combination of human errors, process errors and equipment failures and that none of the personnel knew they were striking a hospital.”
This argument did not appease Doctors Without Borders (MSF), an international medical relief agency, which has condemned the strike on its facility as a crime, and has repeatedly demanded an international inquiry.
“Today’s briefing amounts to an admission of an uncontrolled military operation in a densely populated urban area, during which US forces failed to follow the basic laws of war,” MSF president Meinie Nicolai said.
“It is incomprehensible that, under the circumstances described by the US, the attack was not called off.”
Nicolai argued the threshold for deeming an attack on a hospital a crime should not be the soldiers’ intent and lamented that the Afghan victims of the strike have no legal recourse against the US military.
“The lack of meaningful accountability sends a worrying signal to warring parties, and is unlikely to act as a deterrent against future violations of the rules of war,” she said.
Last year, Obama called MSF to offer his apologies for the strike, but on Friday his spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the president stood by the Pentagon’s investigation.
“This is the transparent, thorough and objective accounting that the president had asked for,” he said.
“The United States goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and when those casualties do occur … the United States of America owns up to it.”
– Taliban victory –
On October 3, 2015 US special forces were deployed to Kunduz alongside Afghan forces in order to recapture the northern city from the Taliban, who had overrun it in one of their dramatic successes of the war.
At the time of the attack on the hospital the joint US and Afghan force had been engaged in a fierce street battle for four days and, according to Votel, was tired and running low on supplies.
Coming under fire once again the troops called for air support from an AC-130 gunship, a powerful war plane based on the airframe of a transport but equipped with cannons and a howitzer.
According to Votel, the air crew scrambled earlier than they had expected and failed to take list of protected sites with them. A radio that could have passed on the coordinates in flight malfunctioned.
Once over Kunduz the plane was fired upon by a ground to air missile, a rare threat in the Afghan theater, and the crew had to take evasive action before returning to the scene of the fighting.
The special forces on the ground attempted to describe the location of a Taliban-occupied building around 400 yards from the hospital. In the confusion, however, the war plane targeted the wrong site.
“Our forces did not receive fire from the trauma center during the incident nor did the investigation find that insurgents were using it as a base for operations,” Votel said.
Despite no fire coming from the hospital, the AC-130 turned its enormous firepower on the target, pummelling it repeatedly over an extended period.
Witnesses told MSF that the main central block of the facility housing the intensive care unit was targeted precisely, with nearby buildings unscathed, and many patients burned to death in their beds.