The U.S. must take the major blame for the deadly airstrike on the Kunduz hospital, Army Gen. John Campbell said Tuesday in testimony that also made a strong case for President Obama to change his plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
"Yes, sir," Campbell replied when asked directly by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, if it was his "professional judgment" that Obama should revise the plan.
Earlier in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Campbell said that "Based on conditions on the ground, I do believe we have to provide our senior leadership (with) options different than the current plan we are going with," Campbell said.
On the Oct. 3 airstrike in Kunduz which killed at least 22, Campbell said that "to be clear, the decision to provide aerial fires was a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command" and a Doctors without Borders hospital "was mistakenly struck."
"We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility," said Campbell, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
However, a U.S. Special Forces unit on the ground in Kunduz called in the airstrike when requested by Afghan troops, and an Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunship conducted the attack early last Saturday morning that Doctors Without Borders said lasted more than an hour, Campbell said.
"Even though the Afghans requested that (air) support, it still has to go through a rigorous U.S. procedure to enable fires to go on the ground," Campbell said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the SASC chairman, asked if the Special Forces unit on the ground had a Joint Terminal Attack Controller, or JTAC, with them to call in the airstrike.
Campbell said a Special Forces unit, which is supposed to be trained in close air support, was "in close vicinity that was talking to the aircraft that delivered those fires."
Campbell pledged a thorough investigation of the incident and accountability for any wrongdoing. He said he expected to report preliminary results within 30 days of an Article 15-6 fact-finding investigation of the tragedy now being conducted by Army Brig. Gen. Richard C. Kim.
In a statement, Jason Cone, executive director in the U.S. of Doctors Without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) said that Campbell's testimony "is just the latest in a long list of confusing accounts from the U.S. military about what happened in Kunduz on Saturday."
"They are now back to talking about a ‘mistake' – a mistake that lasted for more than an hour, despite the fact that the location of the hospital was well known to them and that they were informed during the airstrike that it was a hospital being hit."
"All this confusion just underlines once again the crucial need for an independent investigation into how a major hospital, full of patients and MSF staff, could be repeatedly bombed," Cone said.
Afghan commanders in Kunduz have acknowledged asking for the airstrike while denying responsibility for how it was carried out.
Abdullah Guard, commander of Afghan special forces in Kunduz, told Reuters that his men had been under heavy fire in the area near the hospital, fighting a Taliban force estimated at around 500 men.
"It is possible our forces might have called for an air strike to hit the enemy position, but that doesn't mean to go and bomb the hospital," he told Reuters.
Campbell's own position as Afghan commander appeared to be safe, barring any unforeseen disclosures in the ongoing investigations of the Kunduz hospital bombing. Statements from the White House have yet to question Campbell's role, and senators from both sides of the aisle at the hearing called his leadership "outstanding."
On the overall status of the war in Afghanistan, Campbell said the ability of the Taliban last week to overrun Kunduz, a northern city of about 300,000 and the capital of Kunduz province, pointed to the shortcomings of the Afghan National Security Forces and the need for an ongoing U.S. presence.
Campbell said he had provided several options to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Obama's plan announced in 2014 to reduce U.S. forces to what McCain called an "embassy centric" presence of about 1,000 by the end of 2016.
Campbell noted that Obama had already shown "flexibility" on his plan, which initially had called for U.S. forces to be reduced to 5,000 by the end of this year.
Campbell argued against the reduction to 5,000 and he said he now has about 10,000 U.S. troops in his command.
Campbell also pointed to the growing presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Afghanistan that he said would make a complete U.S. withdrawal more risky.
Campbell said the ISIS presence was small and consisted mostly of "rebranded" Taliban rather than foreign fighters in eastern Nangarhar province, where they have been hit by several U.S. drone strikes. He classified their threat as "operationally emergent."
Those claiming allegiance to ISIS were mainly "disenfranchised Taliban" who saw the ISIS brand "as a way to gain more media, more resources, so they kind of changed T-shirts, raised a different flag," Campbell said.
The main reason for his reluctance to endorse a full withdrawal, Campbell said, was the state of the Afghan National security forces. "They cannot handle the fight alone at this stage of (their) development," he said.
Campbell stressed the parlous state of the Afghan air forces. Their own close air support was limited to Russian-made Mi-35 helicopters, Campbell said. He said the Afghans had five Mi-35s in their entire inventory, and three of those were down because of poor maintenance and lack of spare parts.
For fixed-wing air support, the Afghans were counting on the U.S. delivery of prop-driven Embraer 314 "Super Tucano" attack aircraft, but Campbell said the planes would not be operational until 2017 or 2018 at best.
In their questioning of Campbell, a bipartisan group of senators expressed support for a continued U.S. troop presence to provide training and counter-terror operations past 2016. No senator spoke in support of Obama's current withdrawal plan.
McCain said he was against a "politically-driven withdrawal." Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking Democrat on the Committee, noted the "worsening situation" in Afghanistan and echoed McCain in saying withdrawals should be "based on conditions on the ground."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org