The Army Special Forces unit that fought its way into the Afghan city of Kunduz after it was seized by the Taliban in October initially did so without proper maps, according to recently declassified documents.
The documents, released last month, were part of a heavily redacted report on the Oct. 3, 2015, bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital that killed between 30 and 42 civilians. The investigation, aside from piecing together why an American AC-130U gunship targeted and destroyed a medical facility, revealed a host of issues that beset a small team of Army Special Forces soldiers and their Afghan counterparts as they pushed into a city held by a large Taliban force.
On Sept. 28, the Taliban, after a series of concerted attacks, seized Kunduz from Afghan security forces. Roughly a day later, and with just 12 hours of planning, a dozen-man Army Special Forces team, known as an Operational Detachment Alpha or ODA, began pushing into the city alongside its Afghan allies. According to the investigation documents, the team was using a “single” 1:50,000 scale map to “plan and conduct operations in the city.”
According to the report, “technological issues” prevented the production of further “graphics” prior to the start of the operation. U.S. military doctrine holds that certain scale military maps, such as the type used by the ODA team at the start of the Kunduz operation, often do not have enough detail for a ground unit to accurately analyze urban areas. To remedy this, units often produce their own maps at much larger scales — often just labeling satellite imagery with roads and building numbers — to help ground forces navigate. These more precise maps and imagery were unavailable because the printer was only producing “magenta blobs,” according to the report.
Although the unit did not have the right maps, it is likely they had additional capabilities to understand the situation on the battlefield, likely including mapping software known as FalconView, GPS receivers and video feeds broadcast from drones circling overhead.
It wasn’t until Oct. 1 that the Green Berets, as the Army Special Forces are also known, “discovered a comprehensive 1:10,000” map that apparently had been left behind or given to the Special Forces soldiers by a unit responsible for public works projects. Before the team stumbled upon the new map, it had seen heavy fighting and was responsible for calling in more than a dozen airstrikes during the day.
The German military was responsible for the city and the surrounding area, known as Regional Command North. The U.S. Army and Army National guard also had a significant presence in the city from 2009 to 2012. Army Special Forces also maintained a small base just outside the city, and had done so continuously for some time.
According to Adrian Bonenberger, an Army company commander who was deployed in Kunduz in 2011, his unit had detailed maps and satellite imagery of the city. Bonenberger thinks those maps were not properly handed over to Army Special Forces when regular Army units pulled out in 2012.
“This is indicative of how the United States fights its wars,” Bonenberger said. “It’s a profound flaw in the ‘deployment’ system that encourages unit compartmentalization and limits cross-communication.”
In a witness statement, one Green Beret, whose name and rank were redacted, decried his command’s ambivalence toward the situation on the ground, stating that the enemies of the operation were not the Taliban but “a profound lack of strategy.”
This post has been updated and updated to show a 1:50,000 scale map. An earlier version of this post showed a 1:250,000 scale. Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.