The bombardment that struck a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was requested by an Army Special Forces unit that apparently knew that the structure was a hospital but believed it was under Taliban control, according to an Associated Press report.
The report, released Monday and citing a number of anonymous sources, also indicated that the hospital’s location was well-circulated to U.S. forces and that, in the days prior to the attack, U.S. officials had confronted Doctors Without Borders about the Taliban’s presence in their facility.
Doctors Without Borders have denied that Taliban fighters had seized the facility.
“The hospital was under the control of [Doctors Without Borders]. Our staff reported no armed combatants or fighting in the compound prior to the airstrike,” said Tim Shenk, a Doctors Without Borders spokesman, in an email.
Pentagon spokesman Army Maj. Roger Cabiness, did not dispute the AP’s report, but wrote in an email that there are still multiple ongoing investigations and that “it would be premature to draw any conclusions before those investigations are complete.”
Even with the apparent coordination and knowledge of the facility, a prominent one-story building towards the south of the city, a U.S. AC-130U gunship from 4th Special Operations Squadron targeted and fired upon the facility with a combination of 25mm and 40mm cannon as well as a 105mm howitzer in the early hours of Oct. 3rd. According to those on the ground, the strike lasted for almost an hour and involved four distinct passes from the aircraft. AC-130’s traditionally circle their targets in a wide orbit, banking continuously to the left in order to align their weapon systems. The AC-130 is known as a premier close air support platform and more often than not operate as attachments to special operation teams.
The attack, according to new reports from Doctors Without Borders, left 30 dead and resulted in the shuttering of the hospital.
According to those familiar with the incident, the crew of the AC-130, call sign Hammer, verified their permission to fire twice before engaging the hospital. AC-130Us carry a crew of 14, often including a special forces liaison officer responsible for communicating with ground units. While it is still unclear who relayed the initial call for an airstrike, according to U.S. officials, the request came from an Afghan special forces unit that was pinned down by Taliban fire. The request was then relayed to the Joint Operations Command manned by soldiers from the Army’s 3rd Special Forces Group and their Afghan counterparts located south of the city near the Kunduz airport. The JOC then directed the AC-130 to the vicinity of the hospital where the AC-130 identified Taliban fighters firing from the hospital grounds. From there the JOC authorized the AC-130 to fire.
AC-130s operate with a variety of infared and low-light sensors that allow them to see almost everything on the battlefield below, albeit not in color. In order for the aircraft to fire, it must locate the friendly forces it is supporting before engaging enemy targets. Though there are now various accounts circulating about what happened that night, it is still unknown who talked to the aircraft and when. Was there an American combat controller embedded with the Afghan forces talking to the AC-130? Or was the aircraft only talking to American special forces soldiers located at the command center nowhere near the battle?
Another important question raised by the hospital bombardment is whether the U.S. government can be charged with war crimes for knowingly targeting a hospital — something that Doctors Without Borders has repeatedly accused U.S. forces of doing. According to the Law of Armed Conflict and the Army field manual of the law of land warfare, “Medical units/establishments lose protection if committing ‘acts harmful to the enemy.’ Acts harmful to the enemy are not only acts of warfare proper, but also any activity characterizing combatant action, such as setting up observation posts, or the use of the hospital as a liaison center for fighting troops.”
The Law of Armed Conflict also notes that even if a hospital is being used in a manner which voids its protected status that “protection ceases only after a warning has been given, and it remains unheeded after a reasonable time to comply.”
So in this case, even if the Taliban had been using the hospital, the United States could still possibly be at the same level of fault regardless of the Taliban’s presence.
While Doctors Without Borders had called for an external investigation into the incident, the Pentagon is still conducting one of its own that has yet to be released.
“My intent is to disclose the findings of the investigation once it is complete,” said Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in an emailed statement Saturday. “We will be forthright and transparent and we will hold ourselves accountable for any mistakes made. While we desire the investigation to be timely, what’s most important is that it be done thoroughly and correctly.”