US Troops Weren't Under Fire in Afghan Hospital Airstrike: General

  • Fires burn in part of the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kanduz, Afghanistan, after it was hit by an air strike on October 3, 2015 Photo: Medecins Sans Frontieres via Agence France Press
    Fires burn in part of the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kanduz, Afghanistan, after it was hit by an air strike on October 3, 2015 Photo: Medecins Sans Frontieres via Agence France Press
  • Gen. John F. Campbell
    Gen. John F. Campbell

Army Gen. John Campbell contradicted previous reports by his own Afghanistan command Monday and said that U.S. troops weren't under fire when they called for airstrikes that hit a hospital in Kunduz and killed 22 in response to urgent requests for air support from the Afghan forces.

"The Afghans asked for air support from a Special Forces team that we have on the ground providing train, advise and assist in Kunduz," Campbell said. "The initial statement that went out was that U.S. forces were under direct-fire contact. What I'm doing is correcting that statement here."

"We have now learned on that on Oct. 3, Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from the U.S. forces. An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck" in the attack that hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital compound, Campbell said.

"This is different from the initial reports which indicated that U.S. forces were threatened and that the airstrike was called on their behalf," Campbell said.

In his hastily-arranged Pentagon news conference, Campbell didn't clarify whether the hospital was targeted in error or whether U.S. forces made mistake in calling in the airstrikes. Those matters will be the subjects of investigations, he said, and preliminary findings are expected within a few days.

"Again, I want to offer my deepest condolences to those innocent civilians who were harmed and killed on Saturday," Campbell said during a 10-minute Pentagon briefing in which he stopped short of an apology.

In statements, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and President Barack Obama have also offered condolences for what they called a "tragic incident" but not an apology as yet.

The initial reports from Campbell's command said, "U.S. forces conducted an airstrike in Kunduz city at 2:15am (local) Oct. 3 against insurgents who were directly firing upon U.S. servicemembers advising and assisting Afghan Security Forces in the city of Kunduz. The strike was conducted in the vicinity of a Doctors Without Borders medical facility."

Campbell, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, also confirmed that it was an Air Force Special Operations Command AC-130 gunship that carried out the airstrike that Doctors Without Borders said killed 22, including 12 staffers and three children, and wounded more than 30.

"I think it's been reported that it was an AC-130 gunship. That, in fact, is what it was," the general said. "If errors were committed, we'll acknowledge them," he said. "We'll hold those responsible accountable, and we will take steps to ensure mistakes are not repeated."

Campbell praised the "tremendous work" that the Nobel Peace Prize-winning medical aid group Doctors Without borders "conducts in Afghanistan and throughout the world. They have provided invaluable medical assistance to those most in need in Afghanistan."

In a statement, Christopher Stokes, the general director of Doctors Without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), said Monday that he was "disgusted by the recent statements coming from some Afghanistan government authorities justifying the attack," the Associated Press reported.

"These statements imply that Afghan and U.S. forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital," Stokes said.

Campbell essentially confirmed the MSF accounts of what happened early Saturday morning -- that U.S. troops were never under fire, and that Taliban fighters were never in the hospital compound and firing from there on U.S. and Afghan forces.

Campbell declined comment on MSF statements that the hospital's GPS location was known to the U.S. and that MSF officials pleaded with the U.S. to call off the airstrikes that hit again and again between 2:08 a.m. and 3:15 a.m. Saturday morning local time.

The airstrikes came after the Taliban attacked on Sept. 28 and overran Kunduz, a northern city of about 300,000 and the capital of Kunduz province.

It was the first time since the U.S. invaded in late 2001 that the Taliban had taken a provincial capital and raised doubts about President Obama's current plan that calls for the withdrawal of the remaining 9,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with the exception of several hundred for embassy security and other duties, by the end of 2016.

Campbell declined to answer questions about whether he would recommend that U.S. troops stay in Afghanistan beyond 2016.

He noted that he would be testifying about Kunduz and future U.S. commitments at hearings of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees on Tuesday and Thursday. "I'll take those questions from Congress," Campbell said.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have since reportedly regained most of the city but Campbell said fighting continued. "Unfortunately, the Taliban have decided to remain in the city," he said.

Decomposing bodies littered the streets of Kunduz and food was running short, Reuters reported from Kunduz. "This city is no longer fit for living," said Sayed Mukhtar, the province's public health director.

In his briefing, Campbell also declined to say whether he would recommend changes in the rules of engagement in Afghanistan on when and where to call for airstrikes. "Those are some of the things that will come out in the investigation," he said.

Campbell said he first had to determine the facts of the tragedy in Kunduz. He said the U.S., NATO and the Afghans were conducting separate investigations. MSF has called for an independent and "transparent" investigation by an international body of what MSF officials initially labeled as a "war crime."

Campbell said the initial U.S. Article 15-6 fact-finding investigation was being conducted by Army Brig. Gen. Richard C. Kim, director of CJ-35, or the combined joint planning section, for NATO's Resolute Support mission and the U.S. Operation Freedom's Sentinel in Afghanistan.

Kim was already on the ground in the Kunduz area to begin the preliminary work, Campbell said. Kim previously served as deputy commanding general for maneuver of the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea.

Carter, who is traveling in Europe to NATO meetings, said of Kunduz that "the situation there is confused and complicated, so it may take some time to get the facts, but we will get the facts."

Carter told reporters traveling with him enroute to Madrid that he had spoken with Campbell and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and pledged that "there will be accountability as always in these incidents, if that is required."

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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