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Posted by on Dec 11, 2015 in Middle East | 13 comments

The Human Cost of Human Error

The Human Cost of Human Error

It has been, at time of writing, two months and one week since the U.S. airstrike on a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital that killed at least thirty people. Among them were at least thirteen MSF staff and ten patients; seven bodies were burned beyond all identification. In the months since the attack, no independent report has been forthcoming. On December 9th, MSF issued a petition, with over half a million signatures,calling on the United States government to consent to an independent investigation of the attack. While the world awaits the U.S. government’s response, this is a good time to consider the facts of the attack, such as they have been established.

If anything has been consistent in the aftermath of the attack, it has been the inconsistency of the United States military’s explanation. On October 3rd, the day of the attack, the U.S. military’s spokesman in Afghanistan, Colonel Brian Tribus, referred to the attack as “collateral damage.” This has subsequently shown to be untrue – the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the hospital was specifically targeted. In the words of MSF’s own report on the attack: “The main hospital building, which housed the intensive care unit, emergency rooms, laboratory, X-ray, outpatient department, mental health, and physiotherapy ward, was hit with precision, repeatedly, during each aerial raid, while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched.” (Emphasis mine).

The MSF hospital in Kunduz burns after sustained aerial attack by the United States Air Force. (Photo credit: AFP Photo / MSF)

The MSF hospital in Kunduz burns after sustained aerial attack by the United States Air Force. (Photo credit: AFP Photo / MSF)

Nor has the military’s subsequent claim on October 4th, that U.S. forces were under attack from the hospital, held up to scrutiny. In a statement made on the 5th of October, General John Campbell, commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, admitted that American troops were not, in fact, claiming to have taken fire from the hospital, but that it was Afghan forces who requested the strike. Even this claim still has two troubling elements. The first is that MSF has insisted, and the U.S. military has confirmed, that no weapons were present in the Kunduz hospital, making the claim that fire had been coming from the hospital demonstrably untrue. The second is the implication that Afghan forces requested the attack. This is troubling in its own right because the Afghan government has a dark past with the very same hospital that was later bombed – in July, Afghan special forces raided the hospital and, threatening MSF personnel at gunpoint, arrested three of the patients in the hospital’s care before leaving without the patients. The Afghan government has objected to MSF’s treatment of Taliban combatants, though MSF has replied that its humanitarian mission requires it to treat all those in need, regardless of allegiance and that, under international law, the wounded in need of treatment are noncombatants by definition. This casts serious doubts over the intentions of the Afghan forces in Kunduz in calling for the airstrike – if indeed they are the ones responsible.

In all, over the course of the 3rd to the 6th of October, the United States military issued four statements that contradicted each other in varying degree. In and of itself, this is not surprising – initial reports of any event are, by nature, prone to error. What is unsettling is that even after revision and Congressional testimony, even more problems with the official story are coming to light. The United States military released a summary of its preliminary report on the bombing in November, in which it claimed a variety of factors – human, technical, and organizational – led to the bombing. The attack itself, it claimed, had fundamentally been due to human error. The report, while illustrative, cannot possibly be conclusive, compiled as it was by the very organization that stands to lose from an unfavorable investigation.

This brings us to present-day issues with the military’s story. For starters, contrary to what the lay person might imagine as an “airstrike” – a lone aircraft, high above the target – the plane that carried out the Kunduz bombing was an AC-130, a converted cargo aircraft that has to fly low in order to visually identify its target before opening fire. The attack, the U.S. military claims, was intended for a different target in Kunduz, which was being used by Taliban militants. Assuming what has been released of the official report is correct, even after the crew were informed of their mistake, they remained “fixated” on the original target, continuing to fire upon it even as they were given indications that the attack was misplaced.  This, in and of itself, is tantamount to the admission of a war crime – U.S. military personnel willingly and knowingly continued firing upon a target after they were informed of its neutrality.


The Kunduz hospital compound, before and after the attack. (Source: MSF)


The second issue comes much more recently, and conflicts with the official claim that the hospital was not the intended target. In a letter to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Representative Duncan Hunter, member of the House Armed Services Committee, quoted unnamed U.S. servicemen present at the attack as saying that the Afghans requested the airstrike on the hospital specifically, claiming that it had been abandoned by MSF and overrun by Taliban combatants. If this is the case, it raises serious questions about the infrastructure responsible for authorizing airstrikes, as the coordinates and operations of the hospital were well-known to the United States military command in Afghanistan, with updated information being passed along as recently as September 29. In addition, the hospital itself sent out a distress call during the attack which went unheeded for seventeen minutes, in which time the AC-130 continued to fire on the hospital.

At present, three investigations are currently underway as to what truly occurred on October 3rd, one by NATO, one by the United States, and one by the Afghan government. There is grounds enough for suspicion with this information alone – all three investigators are either directly or indirectly implicated by the attack. American soldiers have already forced their way unannounced into the hospital in the aftermath of the attack, potentially destroying or otherwise compromising vital evidence. This was in violation of all investigating parties’ assurances that they would inform MSF of any investigation to take place on the former hospital grounds. If this is how the United States intends to carry out its investigation, an independent investigation, already an obvious necessity, becomes absolutely imperative.To that end, the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, an independent body provided for under the Geneva Convention to investigate war crimes but never before convened, has reportedly been activated. If the governments of the United States and Afghanistan give their consent, an independent investigation can finally begin.

In the meantime, the Kunduz trauma hospital, the only one of its kind in northern Afghanistan, has been closed, its surviving staff evacuated. In 2014, the MSF staff at the Kunduz hospital treated 22,000 patients. Now, the hospital is a ruin. One can only that hope an independent report can conclusively shed light as to why.


  1. Several U.S. Special Operations air and ground team members have been suspended for a stunning and fatal series of mistakes that resulted in an AC-130 gunship repeatedly hitting the wrong target in the Kunduz hospital strike last month that killed 30 people, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday.

    “No nation does more to prevent civilian casualties than the United States, but we failed to meet our own high standards on October 3” in the airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders trauma center, said Army Gen. John Campbell, commander of the NATO Resolute Support Mission and U.S. Forces- Afghanistan.

    “This was a tragic, but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error,” Campbell said in giving a long-awaited preliminary report on the findings and recommendations of a continuing Article 15-6 investigation into the incident under the Uniform Code of Military.

    • I would just add that, considering the possibility that the Afghan forces who requested the airstrike (which was then relayed by Special Operations) did so on the hospital specifically and not on an alternate target, there needs to be an independent investigation into the bombing. It may well have been human and technical error that led to the bombing, but an independent investigation would finally put the question to bed.

      • I’ve flown in a SOC AC-130. While the orbit altitude is “low” relative to high altitude bombers, the targets are not distinguishable as “good guys” and “bad guys” — they are grey-scale images on a screen, often blurred by extreme turbulence found in mountainous areas (such as Afghanistan).
        This is not an excuse, but may help mitigate the accusations of malice implied by your use of the term “war crimes.”

        • I don’t doubt that there’s likely a fog-of-war element at play here. That said, in the event that the AC-130 crew in question either were instructed to attack the hospital (according to the source quoted by Rep. Hunter) or mistook their orders and were too “fixated” on the target to stop (the official stance of the US military), it would appear that a war crime was committed in either case. If the attack was called in on the hospital, responsibility would fall on those in command who authorized the attack – as well, possibly, as those who carried it out. If there was a technical error in relaying the orders – as opposed to negligence – then the responsibility would fall on the crew who continued to fire, contrary to orders.

          Either way, we won’t know the full story until there is an independent investigation. One of these stories is clearly more preferable to the military than the other – better that crews be overworked and mistaken than the command infrastructure itself be implicated. Which doesn’t invalidate the military’s report per se, but it does demand an impartial investigation.

          • Nothing suggests that this incident can be construed as a
            “war crime,” which requires willful intent
            (either intentional or reckless).
            Look to ISIS if you need clarification of what constitutes a “war crime.”

          • The evidence thus far indicates quite the opposite. By all indications, it’s still thoroughly possible the United States military knowingly and deliberately called an airstrike on a hospital at the behest of the Afghan government (which would indicate intent), or was at least was insufficiently discriminating in not bombing a hospital whose coordinates were known to them and which made contact with responsible persons in the military during the attack (which would indicate recklessness). To conclusively determine if a war crime was committed, an independent investigation is absolutely necessary.

          • So it’s “possible,” therefore likely? Which is it?
            And — who should be the “independent investigator?”

          • You misunderstand me, I said it’s a matter of probable cause. I would argue that there’s grounds for a reasonably suspicious person to believe that a war crime may have been committed – that the hospital was attacked either intentionally at the request of the Afghan government or inadvertently through negligence. That’s what an independent investigation would seek to discover.

            As to who would conduct the investigation, as I mentioned in the article, MSF has requested the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to be the independent investigator. Considering the Commission exists precisely to investigate alleged war crimes, that seems like a reasonable enough choice. That said, if another independent body is capable of investigating, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed. I would say the ICC would also potentially be a good actor, but the United States hasn’t ratified the Rome Statute. Besides which, the ICC tends to handle “bigger” cases (other indictments by the ICC include Joseph Kony and Muammar Gaddafi, both of which are substantially worse than this case.)

          • Again, “Probable cause” *may* be justification to investigate by competent authority, but is far from “war crime.”
            The IFFC has no jurisdiction unless invited. The USA and Afghanistan are not signatories.
            Serbia, Russia, and Rwanda are member states — they know lots about war crimes — maybe they can provide a fair, unbiased, objective investigation?

          • I’m genuinely unsure what it is you’re trying to say. There is probable cause war crime (deliberately bombing a hospital) may have been committed. That demands an impartial investigation. That’s all I’m saying.

            I know the IHFFC needs to be given consent to investigate. I put that in the article – twice.

            Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom are also members of the IHFFC. I don’t see what point you’re trying to make other than “Well other countries also do bad things.” Obviously that’s true. It’s also completely irrelevant to this case. You can’t get away with murder by saying that other people have also murdered.

          • I’ll try one more time: “probable cause” is one thing.
            “War crime” is something else.
            You are making an unsupported leap from “I suspect” to “I conclude.”
            Just because it was US military action does not make it a war crime.
            Just because it’s terrible doesn’t mean it’s a war crime.
            Just because people died doesn’t mean it’s a war crime.
            Just because there was intel indicating a certain location was or was not a target does not make it a war crime.

            Assuming an entire chain of command conspired with malicious intent to ignore the rules of engagement is a stretch beyond comprehension. Getting any three soldiers to agree on something is tough. This was a multi-tired operation across services. Good luck proving a conspiracy.
            International courts are rarely objective. There are many, many axes to grind, and as the most influential actor on Earth, the “piss on our grave” line is long.
            Better-placed folks in US foreign policy positions have likely determined that the risk of a sham investigation is not warranted by the facts of the case.
            Is it a shame? Absolutely. Was it preventable? Possibly. Was it criminal? Highly unlikely.

          • You still misunderstand me. What I said is that there is probable cause (i.e. a reasonable amount of suspicion) that a war crime was committed – the hospital was directly targeted. If it was targeted deliberately and knowingly – which we do not know, mind, but we should investigate that possibility – then it would be a war crime. Not because people died. Not because it was the US military that did it (nice insinuation, by the way). Because a hospital was attacked, and if it was attacked deliberately, that is a war crime under international law. The investigation would then determine if it was deliberate.

            I’m not going to defend positions that I have not taken. I simply do not know – nor do you, though you claim to – what the decision-making process of the attack was. Full stop. That’s why investigations exist. In the absence of impartial investigation, all we can do is speculate. Moreover, I reject out of hand the idea that the IHFFC, an international body, is somehow more biased than the US military when it comes to investigating actions made by the US military. You can rave all you like about “sham” investigations, but all you’ve been able to demonstrate is your apparent conviction that the world is out to get the United States, for which you again provide no evidence. The US military has ample reason to lie, and ample reason to conduct a self-serving investigation. The IHFFC does not have any incentive to find the US innocent or guilty, despite your repeated and unsupported assertion to the contrary.

          • The question at this point isn’t really of guilt but of probable cause. I think it’s plainly apparent that there is probable cause that a war crime may have been committed, and that merits an investigation. Every word of the military’s report may be completely accurate. This may well have just been an accident. But until that has been established by an independent body with nothing to gain or lose by reporting one way or another, we just won’t know.

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