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American Forces Press Service

Centcom Commander: Communications Breakdowns, Human Errors Led to Attack on Afghan Hospital

By Jim Garamone DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, April 29, 2016 – Communications and equipment failures and human error compounded by the stress of combat contributed to the mistaken airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders trauma facility in Kunduz City, Afghanistan, last October, the commander of U.S. Central Command said here today.

Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel told Pentagon reporters that 16 service members were disciplined because of the tragic attack by an AC-130 aircraft that led to the deaths of 42 people.

Votel again apologized for the incident and said the command will do all it can to learn from the incident.

Unintended Target

The general stressed that none of the personnel involved in the attack knew they were firing on a hospital. "The intended target was an insurgent-controlled site which was approximately 400 meters from the Doctors Without Borders Trauma Center," the general said. "The investigation found that an AC-130 gunship air crew in support of a U.S. [Army] Special Forces element that was supporting an Afghan partner ground force misidentified and struck the Doctors Without Borders Trauma Center."

Votel put the mistaken attack in context. U.S. special operations personnel and their Afghan partners on the ground in Kunduz had been engaged in intense fighting for several consecutive days and nights and had repelled heavy and sustained enemy attacks, he said.

"The ground force was fatigued from days of fighting, still engaged with an aggressive enemy, and running low on supplies," the general said. "In response to this urgent tactical situation, the AC-130 aircraft and crew launched from the base 69 minutes earlier than originally planned."

The urgent situation meant the aircrew did not have time to receive all pertinent information, to include identification of no-strike areas such as the hospital. The aircraft's satellite radio failed en route to Kunduz and the aircrew could not receive the no-strike information once in flight.

Incoming Missile

"Shortly after arriving on the scene, the aircraft was fired on by a surface-to-air missile and subsequently moved several miles away from the city center," Votel said. "From this distance, the aircrew received the grid coordinates of a Taliban-controlled building."

When they attempted to plot the coordinates of the enemy building, he said, the system directed them to an open field, which was obviously not the correct location. "The aircrew attempted to find the intended target in the nearby area, but instead, they found the Doctors Without Borders trauma center that generally matched the physical description of the building relayed over the radio by the ground force," the general said.

The aircrew mistakenly believed that the trauma center was the Taliban-controlled building, which was actually about one-quarter mile away, Votel said. "The investigation found that throughout the engagement that followed, the ground force commander and the aircrew mistakenly believed that the aircrew and aircraft was firing on the intended target," the general said.

Protected Facility

The general emphasized that the trauma center was a protected facility and was on a no-strike list. "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," he said.

The investigation concluded that certain personnel failed to comply with the rules of engagement in the law of armed conflict, but this did not rise to the level of war crime, the general said. "The label 'war crimes' is typically reserved for intentional acts -- intentional targeting [of] civilians or intentionally targeting protected objects or locations," he said.

Votel said the 16 service members -- including a general officer -- received appropriate administrative or disciplinary action, including suspension and removal from command, letters of reprimand, formal counseling and extensive retraining.

"In light of the report's conclusion that the errors committed were unintentional, and after considering other mitigating factors, such as the intense combat situation and equipment failures that affected the mission, from a senior commander's perspective, the measures taken against these individuals were appropriate to address the errors they made," he said.

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