KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN — A deadly U.S. airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital last month has triggered an international outcry and investigations by the Pentagon and NATO. But it was not the only U.S. aerial assault during the battle to cause significant damage in this northern city.
Hours earlier, U.S. warplanes zeroed in on a warehouse and a mansion in two densely populated residential areas, according to witnesses and local officials. No one was killed in those attacks, but the targets were pulverized and the walls and windows of nearby homes were shattered.
All three U.S. strikes — on the warehouse, the mansion and the hospital — were requested by Afghan commanders, who say they asked for help because their forces were under attack by Taliban fighters. But residents said that while their neighborhoods had been conflict zones earlier, there were no militants at any of the locations at the time of the attacks.
The clinic bombardment, on Oct. 3, killed 30 medical staff members and patients in one of the deadliest civilian casualty incidents stemming from a coalition action in the Afghan conflict.
Together, the three attacks raise questions about the quality and reliability of the intelligence that Afghan security forces are providing to their American partners, as well as U.S. decisions to act on that intelligence. The target of every Afghan request for air support has to be independently verified by American military advisers before it is approved, according to U.S. rules of engagement.
Fourteen years after the U.S. intervention toppled the Taliban regime, intelligence gathering and coordination between U.S. and Afghan forces remain a major challenge. Faulty information and communication have been behind numerous civilian casualty incidents, as well as “friendly fire” attacks. Now, investigators are examining how an American AC-130 gunship could bomb a hospital for more than an hour.
“Did U.S. forces fire based solely on intelligence from Afghan troops? Did the U.S. identify and confirm the targets independently?” the watchdog group Human Rights Watch asked as it called for “a credible, independent and transparent investigation that provides genuine accountability.”
The two other airstrikes add grist to the concerns over intelligence. The Oct. 2 attacks on the warehouse and mansion, which housed a local government administrative office, have not been previously disclosed by U.S. authorities.
American forces “conducted three airstrikes in the vicinity of Kunduz city” on Oct. 2 in an effort “to eliminate threats to coalition and Afghan forces,” a U.S. military official acknowledged, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of military protocol. The official said he could not discuss the specific targets of that day or the methods used to select targets.
The head of the Afghan police special forces, who worked with American combat advisers here, said the two targets were struck by American warplanes.
In the case of the mansion, in a densely populated urban area, the strike obliterated a neighboring house and severely damaged others.
“It was a very big mistake,” said Haji Fazhul Rahman, a businessman, as he walked through the charred debris of his four-story home. Taliban fighters had looted the mansion next door, he said, but then left — a day before the American airstrike.
With U.S. efforts to rebuild Afghanistan’s air force challenged by a lack of modern aircraft and trained personnel, American warplanes and drones have become the primary way to help this nation’s beleaguered army and police fight an emboldened Taliban. That makes it crucial that legitimate targets are chosen to prevent civilian casualties and a backlash against U.S. forces, particularly as the insurgents are increasingly targeting urban areas.
The number of airstrikes has steadily risen since spring, U.S. military data shows, though it is well below levels before the U.S. combat mission officially ended last December. The deployment of U.S. air power is expected to continue with President Obama’s recent decision to keep 5,500 U.S. troops in the country past next year.
But intelligence gathering, by both Afghans and U.S. forces, has been problematic. Under former president Hamid Karzai, American Special Operation forces were heavily criticized for lack of communication and coordination with Afghan forces. Over the years, hundreds of civilians have been killed in airstrikes.
In July, a U.S. airstrike killed eight Afghan soldiers in Logar province, which the provincial governor and Afghan military commanders described as “a mistake” caused by poor communication and coordination.
In the Kunduz hospital attack, two U.S. military investigations underway will “look at a series of potential human errors, failures of process and technical malfunctions that may have contributed” to the decision to attack, said Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, the top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan. Doctors Without Borders has described the attack as a possible war crime and has called for an independent inquiry.
Shoffner, in an interview in the Afghan capital, expressed concern generally over the solidity of Afghan intelligence. “Afghan intel is one of their gaps that we’re going to have to continue to work with them on for years to come,” he said. “It’s critically important.”
Dawlat Waziri, an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, said Afghan forces were trying their best to give their U.S. partners “accurate information” when requesting airstrikes. But he added that the U.S. military also bears responsibility because “all this information is being analyzed by the Americans” before launching an attack.
In the case of the hospital attack, he disputed Gen. John F. Campbell, the U.S. military’s top commander, who said the strike was triggered by a request from Afghan forces facing a Taliban attack. Their request, Waziri said, was to strike Taliban fighters who had taken positions around the hospital.
“We never told the Americans to hit the hospital,” Waziri said. “An investigation is underway, and it will reveal the truth.”
Other Afghan officials, however, contend that insurgents were using the trauma facility as a base. “The Taliban was attacking from the hospital,” said Hamdullah Danishi, the provincial governor, claiming there were 300 insurgents inside. “They were opening fire on our soldiers.”
Doctors Without Borders has denied that armed rebels were inside its facility or that fighting was occurring around its compound at the time of the attack.
But a senior Afghan official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid, said he was “glad” that the hospital was bombed, because “they treated hundreds of Taliban there.”
The hospital had been targeted before. In July, Afghan soldiers stormed the facility searching for wounded Taliban fighters and beat up some staff members, the medical aid group said at the time.
The fighting in Kunduz took place in a complex battlefield environment. Afghan security forces, and their American combat advisers, had not fought inside a densely populated area since the Taliban regime collapsed, and they had never had to wrest a city back from the insurgents.
Taliban fighters were moving quickly from building to building. Calling in an airstrike in such a situation was far more risky than in rural areas.
“Even if there is a difference of a millimeter in the coordinates, you get the wrong target,” said Atiqullah Amarkhil, a retired Afghan army general and a military analyst.
Several hours before the hospital attack, an Afghan special forces unit had asked its U.S. Special Operations advisers to launch airstrikes on the warehouse and the mansion, said Lt. Col. Abdullah Guard, the head of the Afghan police special forces in Kunduz, who worked with the American advisers.
The warehouse was used by a company called Alokozay, a distributor of tea and soft drinks. The mansion served as an administrative office to deal with foreign visas and other issues.
“There were huge numbers of Taliban inside the Alokozay warehouse, huge numbers of Taliban inside the MSF hospital, and huge numbers of Taliban inside the foreign office,” Guard said. “We gave all this information to our foreign allies. We were begging them to launch the airstrikes.”
Witnesses, including a guard who was in a corner of the warehouse compound when the attack unfolded, said there were no Taliban fighters inside. There had been clashes between Taliban and Afghan forces in the neighborhood around the time of the attack, with the insurgents firing from the roofs of houses and quickly melting away, witnesses said.
“When the airplane came, it couldn’t distinguish where the Taliban were located,” said Abdul Wali, 30, a guard at a medical clinic behind the warehouse who witnessed the attack. He said he saw five or six Taliban fighters on the street and in nearby buildings. “But there was none firing from the warehouse.”
Rahman, the businessman who lived next to the mansion, had fled with his family hours before the attack there destroyed his home. As his son, Elham Rahmani, inspected the ruins, he had mixed emotions about the U.S. military’s actions in Kunduz.
On one hand, he said, the airstrikes demolished his home and the only trauma hospital in the region. On the other hand, the attacks stopped the Taliban from reaching the airport, where Afghan soldiers and police had retreated when the insurgents seized the city.
“Or else,” said Rahmani, “the whole province would have fallen to them.”