WASHINGTON – The U.S. special forces soldiers who called in a deadly air strike on a hospital in northern Afghanistan were half a mile away, could not see the target, and ordered the attack at the request of their Afghan partners, The Associated Press has learned.
Those new details add to mounting indications that the U.S. military struck a medical facility and killed at least 30 noncombatants without properly vetting information provided by its Afghan allies. Afghan military elements had long resented the Doctors without Borders hospital, which treated Afghan security forces and Taliban alike but says it refused to admit armed men.
Immediately after the strike, Afghanistan's national security adviser told a European diplomat that his country would take responsibility because "we are without doubt, 100 percent convinced the place was occupied by Taliban," according to notes of the meeting reviewed by the AP.
More than a month later, no evidence has emerged to support that assertion. Eyewitnesses tell the AP they saw no gunman at the hospital.
The hour-long attack by an AC-130 gunship came after days of heavy fighting in the northern Afghanistan city. About 35 members of the 3rd Special Forces Group had been helping about 100 Afghan special forces soldiers retake Kunduz from the Taliban, a former U.S. intelligence official said. From their position in the governor's compound, they came under heavy assault by waves of Taliban fighters, and sought to use air power to destroy the Taliban's remaining command and control nodes around the city.
The Afghans insisted that the hospital had become one of those command centers, and urged it to be destroyed, the former official said.
The U.S. commander could not see the medical facility -- so he couldn't know firsthand whether the Taliban were using it as a base. Afghan officials say their forces were also a half mile away, so they were not in a position to know, either.
Members of the special forces unit have told Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., of the House Armed Services committee, that they were unaware their target was a functioning hospital until the attack was over, said Joe Kasper, Hunter's spokesman.
The strike raises questions about whether the U.S. military can rely on intelligence from Afghan allies in a war in which a small contingent of Americans will increasingly fight with larger units of local forces.
Also at issue is how American commanders, with sophisticated information technology at their disposal, allowed the strike to go forward despite reports in their databases that the hospital was functioning. Even if armed Taliban fighters had been hiding inside, the U.S. acknowledges it would not have been justified in destroying a working hospital filled with wounded patients.
President Barack Obama has apologized for the attack, one of the worst incidents of civilian casualties in the 14-year history of the U.S war effort. The Pentagon has said it was a mistake that resulted from both human and technical errors, and it is investigating, along with NATO and the Afghan government, which also are conducting their own investigations. The U.S. has declined to endorse Doctors without Borders' call for an independent probe.
"No other nation in the history of warfare has gone to the lengths we do to avoid civilian casualties," Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said in a statement. "And when we make a mistake, we will not only own up to it, we will also scrutinize all of the facts to learn from them so that it never happens again."
The AP has reported that some American intelligence suggested the Taliban were using the hospital. Special forces and Army intelligence analysts were sifting through reports of heavy weapons at the compound, and they were tracking a Pakistani intelligence operative they believed was there.
It's unclear how much of that intelligence came from Afghan special forces. Afghan commandos raided the hospital in July, seeking an Al Qaeda member they believed was being treated there, despite protests from Doctors Without Borders. After the American air attack, the Afghan soldiers rushed in, looking for Taliban fighters, Doctors without Borders said.
The U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group knew the hospital was treating patients, according to a daily log by one of its senior officers written Oct. 2. Doctors Without Borders had made sure the U.S. military command in Kabul had the exact coordinates of the hospital.
But 3rd Group also believed the compound was under the control of the Taliban, the daily log says, without explaining why. That belief was so pervasive in the Pentagon that Carter Malkasian, a senior adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emailed Doctors without Borders two days before the attack to ask about it. He was told it wasn't true.
Witnesses tell the AP they saw no evidence of Taliban activity.
"During the whole week of the Kunduz violence leading up to the attack on the hospital, I never saw any Taliban with guns, not even inside the compound, let alone in the buildings," said Gul, who goes by one name and worked as a security guard at the hospital.
It's not clear what the 3rd Group commander who directed the AC-130 strike knew about the hospital, and why he made the decision to attack. Nor is it known who in the chain of command reviewed and approved the decision, and what those people knew.
Drawing electricity from generators, the hospital was among the only brightly lit buildings in Kunduz at night, Doctors without Borders officials have said.
In the hours after the strike, Afghan national security adviser Hanif Atmar, told a European diplomat he had the explicit authority of President Ashraf Ghani to declare that the government of Afghanistan would take full responsibility for the airstrike. The AP is not naming the diplomat because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
"There was no doubt whatsoever that the Taliban were inside the hospital, that they took it over, thus violating its sanctity," notes of the meeting quote Atmar as saying.
Afghan officials insist that the strike was justified.
"The Taliban were around the compound, and were killed when the compound was hit," Sarwar Hussain, spokesman for the Kunduz chief of police, told the AP.
Hamdullah Danishi, the acting governor of Kunduz, said the Taliban "used residential areas and civilians as shields, including civilian homes, health centers, schools, mosques and public places. This is why we say the Taliban hid during the attack inside the (hospital) compound and in other places."