Human Error Mostly to Blame for Deadly Hospital Attack

Army Gen. John Campbell, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, briefs the media via video link from Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov. 25, 2015. Screenshot photo.

Jennife?r Hlad

Nov. 30, 2015: The airstrike that destroyed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in October was a “tragic but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error,” Army Gen. John Campbell, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, told reporters on Nov. 25.

The US investigation into the strike found that human error, compounded by systems and procedural failures, led an AC-130 crew to strike the hospital instead of a different building where there had been reports of combatants, Campbell said.

The AC-130 launched 69 minutes early in response to a troops in contact situation without conducting a normal mission brief or securing information like no-strike designations, he added.

After the gunship was diverted in the air, its electronic systems malfunctioned, eliminating the ability of the crew to send or receive any electronic messages, Campbell said. Then, when the aircraft arrived in the area, the crew believed the plane was targeted by a missile, so it moved out of its normal orbit—degrading the accuracy of some targeting systems.

Even though the US special operations commander provided the correct coordinates for the intended target, when the aircrew typed in the coordinates, they saw an open field about 300 meters away from the building. Based on a physical description, the aircrew identified the closest, largest building near the field, which was the hospital, Campbell said.

Once the AC-130 returned to its original orbit, the grid location system corrected to show the intended target, but “the crew remained fixated on the physical description,” he said.

The report also found the SOF commander lacked the authority to direct the attack under those circumstances, and that he relied primarily on information provided by Afghan partners, and was unable to distinguish between the hospital and the intended target, Campbell said.

Additionally, the aircrew transmitted the coordinates of the hospital to their operational headquarters at Bagram one minute before firing, but the headquarters did not realize the coordinates were on the no-strike list.

About 10 minutes after the strike began, Doctors Without Borders called to say their facility was under attack. It took the headquarters almost 20 more minutes before the special operations commander realized “the fatal mistake,” Campbell said, at which point the strike had already ended.

Thirty staff, patients, and assistants were killed, and 37 more were injured in the strike, the investigation found.