The US military has finished its investigation into the attack on the Konduz Trauma Center operated by Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in the early hours (local) of 3 October 2015.
The story of the attack is as simple as it is banal: the guys on the ground and the guys in the air miscommunicated, and the ground guys identified the wrong building to the air guys, who then destroyed it, as requested. But the identified target wasn’t the compound full of Talban; it was the NGO’s hospital.
On Sep. 30, 2015, Sep. Afghan forces and a small element of US Special Forces attempted to re-take the City of Kunduz, which had been seized by the Taliban. The US and Afghan forces established a small base on an Afghan Police compound in Kunduz and repelled several Taliban attacks between Sep. 30 and Oct. 2. The US Special Forces element on the ground had been engaged in heavy fighting for nearly five consecutive days and nights at the time of the airstrike on Oct. 3.
On the night of Oct. 2, 2015, the Afghan forces decided to attack an insurgent-controlled site, and requested air support from the US Special Forces element on the ground. An AC-130U Gunship was directed to provide the requested support. The AC-130 launched from its airfield in Afghanistan 69 minutes earlier than the crew had originally planned due to an emergency call, so they did not get all the information they would normally have received before a mission. While en route to Kunduz, one of the AC-130’s critical communications systems failed, resulting in an inability to receive updates from and transmit information to multiple command headquarters. Additionally, after arriving in the operating area, due to significant threats to aircraft in Kunduz, the AC-130 took defensive measures that degraded its ability to locate ground targets. These factors all contributed to the incident.
When the aircrew arrived near Kunduz in the early morning on Oct. 3, 2015, they attempted to locate the Taliban-controlled target site. The Afghan forces provided the correct grid coordinates for the target site to the U.S. Special Forces commander on the ground, who then relayed them to the aircrew through a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC). Due to distance of the aircraft from the location at issue, the aircrew was initially unable to locate the target structure. When the grid coordinates were entered, the system directed the aircrew to an open field. The aircrew then attempted to visually identify the target structure based on a description relayed from the Afghan forces through the JTAC.
Based on this discussion over communications systems, the aircrew identified a structure that they believed to be the Taliban-controlled target structure, but was actually the MSF Trauma Center. Before the engagement, one aircrew member, the TV Sensor Operator, identified the correct structure as possibly fitting the described target. However, following several attempts to clarify which structure was the actual target requested by the Ground Force Commander and the JTAC, the aircraft’s weapons systems were redirected to the originally viewed structure (MSF Trauma Center). The MSF Trauma Center generally matched the general physical description of the Taliban-controlled target structure which was approximately 400 meters away.
The investigation identified several human errors by the aircrew and ground personnel that contributed to this tragic incident, including poor communication, coordination, and situational awareness. The investigation confirmed that MSF officials provided the correct grid coordinates for the MSF Trauma Center to several U.S. government officials and that the location was properly entered on the U.S. military’s “No Strike List” database, but that the aircrew did not have ready access to this database during the strike. The investigation also concluded that the MSF Trauma Center did not have an internationally-recognized symbol to identify it as a medical facility, such as a Red Cross or Red Crescent that was readily visible to the aircrew at night. Throughout the couse of the engagement, all members of the ground force and the aircrew were unaware the aircrew was firing on a medical facility and mistakenly believed that it was firing on the intended target, an insurgent-controlled structure approximately 400 meters away from the MSF Trauma Center.
At approximately 2:08 a.m. local time on Oct 3, 2015, the aircrew began firing on the MSF Trauma Center under the mistaken belief that it was the Taliban-controlled target compound. Starting at approximately 2:19 a.m. MSF personnel notified several US government representatives that the MSF Trauma Center was being engaged. Due to the fighting around Kunduz, it was initially unclear who was engaging the MSF Trauma Center. Following a series of relayed messages through multiple echelons of command, the U.S. Special Forces commander on the ground eventually realized that the AC-130 was engaging the MSF Trauma Center – not the Taliban-controlled structure the crew believed it was engaging – and halted the strike at approximately 2:38 a.m. The investigation determined that the steps taken by several U.S. military personnel during this period were inadequate. The investigation found that the airstrike resulted in at least 30 deaths and 37 injuries at the MSF Trauma Center. Since the investigation was completed, MSF has increased the number of reported casualties to 42 deaths and 229 other claims. The US Government has relied primarily upon MSF for casualty estimates, and these numbers have not been independently verified.
That pretty much wraps the factual summary of the report. To state the conclusions in the more direct terminology used by, say, NTSB:
- The mishap was indeed an accident, not a crime.
- The probable cause of the accident was the USAF AC-130’s misidentification of the MSF Trauma Center as a nearby enemy-held structure.
- The attack continued for 11 minutes before MSF contacted US HQs and concluded after 19 more minutes when the USSF commander on the ground finally realized the AC was striking the wrong building.
- Contributing factors included:
- System failures on the AC-130;
- Procedural shortcuts, ditto;
- Delays at US headquarters, caused in part by the ponderous nature of those HQs;
- Lack of a night-vision-readable protective marking on the hospital (we doubt the US has advised MSF and other protected-structure owners how to mark their structures so that the markings are visible in NV or thermal observation devices, so this is less an indictment of MSF than it appears).
There are numerous other small cock-ups — the whole paper trail is hundreds of pages long — that could be added to the list, but those are the big ones.
The whole thing might have been forestalled, or at least stopped sooner with less loss of life, had the USSF been further forward, but that would violate ROE dictated from Washington and designed solely with a view to domestic politics.
These conclusions are unlikely to satisfy those howling for scalps, so 16 scalps have been provided for their education and recreation.
It is notable that the Afghan National Forces, who often take a savage briefing in the Beltway press, do not seem to have committed any of the significant errors. Unlike in the last Battle of Konduz, in 2001, neither the Taliban nor the Afghan National Forces, appear to have included significant numbers of Konduz natives, yet the Afghan Army provided the correct grid coordinates to the USSF element and their JTAC. The JTAC committed several procedural errors (for which he has been decertified), but provided the correct grids to the orbiting AC-130. The AC crew, not for the first time with this airframe, had screwed their navigation systems up to the point where they decided to disregard them completely and work by eyeball. (That exact same thing was a significant factor in the last AC-130 botched strike we’re aware of, in 2002. We are certain that the AC crew studied that attack, but in the heat of combat did not recognize that they were falling into the same pattern that the 2002 mishap crew did).
The investigation identified 16 U.S. service members whose conduct warranted consideration for appropriate administrative or disciplinary action. The Commander of US Forces-Afghanistan concluded that certain personnel failed to comply with the law of armed conflict and rules of engagement. However, he did not conclude that these failures amounted to a war crime. The label “war crimes” is typically reserved for intentional acts — intentionally targeting civilians or intentionally targeting protected objects.
The comprehensive investigation concluded that this tragic incident was caused by a combination of human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures. The investigation found that this combination of factors caused both the Ground Force Commander and the air crew to believe mistakenly that the air crew was firing on the intended target, which was an insurgent-controlled site approximately 400 meters away from the MSF Trauma Center.
Just as an aside, we’d note that the same analysis of culpability probably applies to the Russian Army shootdown of an airliner over the Ukraine. It wasn’t a war crime, just a tragic screwup. But the difference between the two nations’ responses is interesting. Can you download the Russian internal report, even with redactions? Did they accept any blame and pay any compensation? Rhetorical questions.
One of the real underlying problems here is the limits of back-up inertial navigation on airborne systems. It was cutting edge technology in 1966, and was, and is, good enough to get a nuclear missile to minute-of-city accuracy. Given modern solid-state accelerometers, it should be a lot better. But the irreducible problem with INS is that it’s vitally dependent on starting at an accurate known starting point. GIGO is in effect here.
Another contributing factor is certainly the five days of unrelieved combat the ground forces had been in at the time. This is caused, partly, by the drawdown and by ROE that prioritize the appearance of operations over the reality of operations.
Unfortunately, included in the hundreds of pages of recommendations is more procedure-lock, more lawyer supremacy, more bureausclerosis of all kinds.
It’s classic US Military response to a disaster: do more of what caused it.
We struck out trying to find a releasable, selectable-text version of the document on a public-facing website. This document at cryptome appears identical; we OCRd an executive summary for discussion here. If time permits, which at the moment it doesn’t, we suspect we’d find a lot more of interest in these 727 pages. (To be sure, probably 600 of those pages are almost blank military forms, or content-free boilerplate, but we haven’t got time to sort out the sheep from the goats right now).