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Green Beret officer blames ‘moral cowardice’ for Doctors Without Borders strike

In this Oct. 16, 2015, photo, an employee of Doctors Without Borders walks inside the charred remains of the organization’s hospital after it was hit by a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan. (Najim Rahim/AP)

Declassified military documents released Friday detail not only how the United States mistakenly struck a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan last year but also frustrations among Special Operations troops.

The strike, which killed at least 30 people at the hospital, occurred in the city of Kunduz, which the Taliban had seized in previous days and U.S. Special Operations troops were working alongside Afghan forces to take back.

One officer, whose name, rank and unit were redacted from his witness statement, launched into a diatribe in which he blamed what happened on senior leaders. The officer wrote that he was going to provide unsolicited opinions, and that “these words may well be the greatest contribution of my career for one simple reason: the words I speak are the truth.”

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The officer wrote that the enemies of the Kunduz operation were “moral cowardice” and a “profound lack of strategy.” Army Green Berets on the ground in the city at the time asked for guidance “no fewer than three times” during the multiday battle and heard nothing other than crickets — “though those were hard to hear over the gunfire,” he alleged.

“How have we as a force, as a group of officers, become so lost from the good lessons that our mentors taught us,” the officer asked. “I will tell you how. It is a decrepit state that grows out of the expansion of moral cowardice, careerism and compromise devoid of principle, exchanged for cheap personal gain. We owe the man on the ground more than that, because for him, the decisions that he makes hopefully lands him somewhere between the judge’s gavel and the enemy’s bullet.”

The officer also questioned the U.S. strategy of pulling most U.S. troops back almost entirely onto large bases that they rarely leave, rather than taking a more active approach like in years past.

“If someone must be held accountable,” he concluded, “let it not be the man who was ordered to sky-dive without being given a parachute.”

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Another Green Beret involved in the battle said that the fight to take Kunduz was like nothing most of them had ever seen — even the experienced soldiers who had been in combat for years.

“Tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of rounds were fired against us in our effort to re-take the city,” the soldier said. “I don’t know how to better describe the atmospherics of the situation. How no one was killed, or even wounded, is an absolute miracle.”

Among the U.S. troops who were disciplined is a two-star general, suggesting some of the criticism was deemed accurate by investigating officers. The battle came after the Afghan government and the U.S. military were caught by surprise that Kunduz could fall so quickly. Intelligence at the time suggested that the most volatile area of Afghanistan was northern Helmand province, the investigation noted.