WASHINGTON — Dispatched to eliminate a compound swarming with Taliban fighters, the AC-130 gunship circled above the Afghan city, its crew struggling to figure out where exactly to direct the aircraft’s frightening array of weaponry. Missile fire had forced it off course, and now the gunship’s targeting systems were pointing it to an empty field, not an enemy base.
About 1,000 feet to the southwest, however, the crew spotted a collection of buildings that roughly matched the description of the Taliban compound provided by American and Afghan forces on the ground. Nine men could be spotted walking between the buildings.
The gunship’s navigator called an American Special Forces air controller on the ground seeking guidance. The response was immediate and unequivocal.
“Compound is currently under control of the TB, so those nine PAX are hostile,” the air controller said, using common military shorthand for “Taliban” and “people.”
The air controller was wrong. His mistake was one link in a chain of human errors and equipment and procedural failures that led to the devastating attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan last year that killed 42 people, the Defense Department said Friday, in its first extensive account of what happened in the city of Kunduz, early on the morning of Oct. 3.
In a heavily redacted report, which runs more than 3,000 pages, military investigators described a mission that went wrong from start to finish. Even after Doctors Without Borders informed American commanders that a gunship was attacking a hospital, the airstrike was not immediately called off because, it appears, the Americans could not confirm themselves that the hospital was actually free of Taliban.
“Immediately calling for a cease-fire for a situation we have no SA” — situational awareness, that is — “could put the ground force at risk,” an American commander whose name and rank were redacted was quoted as saying in the report.
Sixteen American military personnel, including a general officer, have been punished for their roles in the strike, said Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the new top officer of the military’s Central Command, who presented the results of the investigation during a Pentagon news conference.
The punishments for the attack will be “administrative actions” only, and none of those being disciplined will face criminal charges because the attack was determined to be unintentional, General Votel said, and neither the gunship crew members nor the Special Forces on the ground who were directing the strike “knew they were striking a medical facility.” The punishments include suspension, removal from command and letters of reprimand, which can seriously damage or end a career.
But General Votel was clear on one point: The hospital was a protected facility that was at no time being used by active Taliban fighters, though some wounded insurgents had been treated there. His statement directly contradicted the claim by many senior Afghan officials that Taliban fighters were in the hospital and therefore a legitimate target.
Still, the release of the investigation’s findings and the announcement of the disciplinary measures were unlikely to satisfy Doctors Without Borders and other human rights groups, which on Friday reiterated their calls for an independent criminal investigation. Some also directly disputed General Votel’s declaration that the airstrike did not constitute a war crime because it was the unintentional result of mistakes and equipment failures, not a deliberate attack.
The failure to bring any criminal charges was “simply put, inexplicable,” said John Sifton, the Asia policy director of Human Rights Watch.
There are legal precedents for war crimes prosecutions based on acts that were committed with recklessness, he added, and recklessness or negligence does not necessarily absolve someone of criminal responsibility under the United States military code.
The broad outlines of what took place on Oct. 3 in the northern city of Kunduz, which had been overrun by Taliban fighters, were established in the weeks and months after the attack: The gunship, responding to a call for support from Afghan commandos who said they were under fire, mistook the hospital for the intended target — a building in the city being used as a base by the Taliban — and unleashed sustained and repeated barrages from its heavy guns on the medical facility, despite frantic calls from Doctors Without Borders to military commanders.
The report released on Friday provided new details of what General Votel called a “tragic incident,” in which American service members “failed to comply with the rules of engagement in the law of armed conflict.”
For the American Special Forces on the ground who called in the attack, the days leading up to the strike had proved extremely taxing. The fall of Kunduz to the Taliban on Sept. 28 was swift and surprising, and two Special Forces teams were hastily sent to reinforce one that was based at the city’s airfield.
Two days later, the Americans, along with Afghan forces, fought their way into the city, establishing a forward position at the headquarters of the police for Kunduz Province. The Americans expected to spend 24 hours there; instead, they spent the next two days fighting off repeated Taliban assaults. They were running low on ammunition, batteries for their equipment and food. They had barely slept in days.
That night, the Special Forces informed their superiors that Afghan troops were planning to assault the local headquarters of Afghanistan’s main spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, which the Taliban were using as a base. The spy agency compound was about 1,600 feet from the American troops, who could not directly see it from their position.
Hundreds of miles away at Bagram Airfield, a sprawling base north of Kabul, the AC-130 crew was preparing to spend the night in the skies above Kunduz, supporting the American and Afghan troops who were fighting to retake the city.
But an unrelated emergency call for air support forced the aircraft to take off 69 minutes ahead of schedule, the report said. There was no time to fully brief the crew members, and a database that would have allowed them to properly identify the hospital as a protected building had not been uploaded to the aircraft’s computers.
A satellite radio on board failed soon after the AC-130 climbed over the wide plain on which Bagram sits and headed across the Hindu Kush mountains toward Kunduz. The radio was the aircraft’s data link; without it, the crew could not upload the database or send and receive any other vital emails or information.
The next surprise came after the AC-130 took up position over Kunduz, when insurgents fired what General Votel said was a surface-to-air missile at the aircraft. The threat of more missiles forced the AC-130 to retreat to a safe position miles from the spy agency headquarters it would soon be called on to strike.
This was no simple evasive maneuver for the gunship. The AC-130 moves slowly, and it is designed to circle above its target in one- to two-mile loops so it can bring to bear the weaponry mounted on one side of the aircraft, including a 105-millimeter howitzer.
The targeting instruments aboard the gunship are typically calibrated to pinpoint targets at relatively short distances. The report said that the need to briefly move miles out to avoid ground fire resulted in the crew’s being unable to find the target after it returned to its original position and prepared to commence its attack.
When the crew entered the coordinates of the target provided by Afghan forces — which were correct — the gunship’s systems instead directed the aircraft to an empty field, the report said. The field was obviously not the target. The crew members’ only option was to rely on their own eyes.
The description provided by the American Special Forces on the ground was vague. The compound had “an outer perimeter wall with multiple buildings inside of it,” the aircrew was told in a radio transmission. “Also, on the main gate, I don’t know if you will be able to pick this up, but it’s also an arch-shaped gate.”
The description could have applied to many compounds in almost any Afghan city. It also matched the layout of the hospital, which was about 400 meters, or 1,300 feet, from the correct target, the report said.
The aircrew appeared to be confused by the directions from the Americans on the ground in the minutes leading up to the attack. At one point, the crew was told it would need to hit a second target after the strike it was about to commence, and “we will also be doing the same thing of softening the target for partner forces,” that is, Afghans.
“So he wants us to shoot?” one crew member asked the others aboard the AC-130.
“Yeah, I’m not positive what softening means,” the navigator replied.
“Ask him,” the pilot added.
The crew did, and was told the “intent is to destroy targets of all opportunity.”
At one point, a crew member, identified in the report as the TV sensor operator, spotted the correct target and said it fit the description that was relayed by Afghan forces. But after “several attempts” to clarify which building should be struck, the aircraft was directed to the hospital.
Still, the crew members appeared to have doubts. They were even unclear on what exactly was meant by targets of opportunity. “I feel like let’s get on the same page for what target of opportunity means,” the navigator told his fellow crew members.
“When I’m hearing targets of opportunity like that,” another crew member said, “I’m thinking you’re going out, you find bad things and you shoot them.”
The conversations among the crew, and the clarifications with the Special Forces on the ground, continued until just after 2 a.m., when the AC-130 was given clearance to fire.
At 2:08 a.m., the attack commenced, and the navigator radioed, “Rounds away, rounds away, rounds away.”
The first round hit the courtyard north of the main building in the hospital compound — the area where men were spotted walking. The second round tore through the roof of the hospital building. By the time the attack was over, the AC-130 had fired 209 more rounds of ammunition from all of its guns, including the howitzer.
It took Doctors Without Borders only about 11 to 12 minutes to reach American officials and raise the alarm about what was unfolding. It continued to make calls and send text messages to American commanders in Afghanistan, the Pentagon in Washington and the Afghan Interior Ministry, throughout the bombardment, imploring them to stop the attack.
Confusion appears to have quickly set in among American commanders in Kabul and troops on the ground in Kunduz. At 2:52 a.m., more than 40 minutes after the AC-130 fired its first shot, Doctors Without Borders in Kabul received a text message reply from someone at the headquarters of the American-led coalition in Kabul that said, “I’m sorry to hear that, I still do not know what happened.”
The report said the American Special Forces commander called off the attack at 2:38 a.m. But a timeline of the calls made by Doctors Without Borders that was also included with the report recorded one at 2:56 from the group demanding the attack be stopped.
At 3:13 a.m., Doctors Without Borders sent a message saying the attack had stopped. Five minutes later, officials at the group’s New York office sent a message to a Pentagon official. The message said the group had confirmed that one of its staff members was dead and “many were unaccounted for.”