April 29: CENTCOM releases investigation into airstrike on Doctors Without Borders trauma center

Release No: UNRELEASED April 29, 2016 PRINT | E-MAIL

April 29, 2016
Release Number 20160429-10

U.S. Central Command releases U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Investigation into Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Trauma Center in Kunduz, Afghanistan

TAMPA, Fla. – ‎The U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) investigation into the U.S. airstrike on Oct. 3, 2015, against a medical facility in Kunduz, Afghanistan, resulting in civilian casualties has been released and posted online at CENTCOM’s Freedom of Information Act Reading Room. 

Click here to view this document.

“We extend our deepest condolences to those injured and to the families of those killed in this tragic incident,” said Gen. Joseph L. Votel, U.S. Central Command commander. “We are fully committed to learning from this tragedy and minimizing the risk of civilian casualties during future combat operations.”

On Oct. 3, 2015, members of USFOR-A supporting a partnered Afghan force, conducted a combat operation that struck a trauma center in Kunduz operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as “Doctors without Borders.”

U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, then the Commander of USFOR-A, directed an investigation to determine the cause of this incident. The lead investigating officer was Army Maj. Gen. William Hickman. He was assisted by Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Armfield and Army Brig. Gen Sean Jenkins. All three generals were brought in from outside Afghanistan in order to provide an objective perspective. The investigation team included over a dozen subject matter experts from several specialty fields.

The investigative team visited the MSF Trauma Center site and several other locations in the city of Kunduz. The team interviewed more than 65 witnesses including personnel at the trauma center, members of U.S. and Afghan ground forces, members of the aircrew, and representatives at every echelon of command in Afghanistan. The team had full access to classified information, and the investigation includes more than 3,000 pages of documentary evidence, much of it classified. Gen. Campbell approved the investigation on Nov. 21, 2015.

The extensive report was subjected to comprehensive reviews before the public release in order to ensure that classified information, protected personally identifying information, and other non-releasable information remains protected. The names of the service members involved were redacted from the released materials to protect the privacy of the individuals and because some of them remain assigned to overseas, sensitive, or routinely deployable units.

The investigation concluded that the personnel involved did not know that they were striking a medical facility. The intended target was an insurgent-controlled site which was approximately 400 meters away from the MSF Trauma Center. The investigation found that an AC-130U Gunship aircrew, in support of a U.S. Special Forces element that was supporting a partnered Afghan ground force, misidentified and struck the MSF Trauma Center. The investigation determined that all members of both the ground force and the AC-130U aircrew were unaware the aircrew was firing on a medical facility throughout the engagement.

The comprehensive investigation concluded that this tragic incident was caused by a combination of human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures. Fatigue and high operational tempo also contributed to the incident. These factors contributed to the “fog of war,” which is the uncertainty often encountered during combat operations. 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, an insurgent-controlled site approximately 400 meters away from the MSF Trauma Center.

The Commander of USFOR-A concluded that certain personnel failed to comply with the rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict. However, the investigation 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 investigation found that the tragic incident resulted from a combination of unintentional human errors and equipment failures, and that none of the personnel knew that they were striking a medical facility.

‎The investigation identified sixteen U.S. servicemembers whose conduct warranted consideration for appropriate administrative or disciplinary action, including a general officer. Gen. Campbell took the action he deemed appropriate regarding twelve of the sixteen personnel involved in this tragic incident who were in Afghanistan, including the general officer. The actions included suspension and removal from command, letters of reprimand, formal counseling, and extensive retraining. Five personnel involved were directed out of theater.

Gen. Campbell also forwarded the investigation to Gen. Votel, then the Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, to consider action regarding the five personnel who had returned to the United States. These five personnel included the officer who Gen. Campbell removed from command and ordered out of Afghanistan. Gen. Votel took action with respect to four of these five personnel, including issuing four letters of reprimand and admonishment, and directing boards to evaluate the flight certification of three aircrew members. Gen. Votel referred the fifth servicemember to the Commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, who issued a written reprimand and directed recertification in the servicemember’s job specialty.

‎Gen. Campbell directed a series of actions to improve operations in Afghanistan as a result of this incident:

  • Gen. Campbell issued an order to conduct supplemental training on the applicable authorities framework, rules of engagement, and the Commander’s tactical guidance, all of which were designed to minimize the risks that a tragedy like this would occur. This training was delivered to over 9,000 personnel and completed in Nov. 2015.
  • Gen. Campbell directed a comprehensive review of the targeting process and published an order reinforcing the application of the No Strike List (NSL), including use of the U.S. Central Command-maintained NSL database.
  • Coordinates for MSF and similar facilities in Afghanistan were verified. Aircraft systems are now pre-loaded with key information -- including the NSL database -- to minimize the reliance on post-launch communications.
  • Gen. Campbell issued a revised “Tactical Directive” and “Targeting Standard Operating Procedure” for USFOR-A. These classified documents emphasize tactical procedures to minimize the risk to civilians and civilian sites.
  • The USFOR-A provided MSF leadership with detailed information to facilitate direct contact with the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Command Center.

Engagements: Senior U.S. representatives have spoken with MSF officials, including the MSF Executive Director, over two dozen times to express condolences, explain how the tragic incident occurred, and outline future steps.

Condolence payments: USFOR-A leaders have offered their sympathies and provided condolence payments to more than 170 individuals and families affected by this tragedy.

Medical capability: The Department of Defense has approved $5.7 million in funds to reconstruct the facility that MSF was using and is working closely with the Afghan government, which owns it, to return the building to its previous condition and help restore a medical capability for the residents of Kunduz.

Separately, the Secretary of Defense has directed the military services and combatant commands to take steps to mitigate the potential for similar incidents in the future by incorporating lessons learned from the Kunduz strike into leadership development and operational training and by conducting a comprehensive review of relevant policies, tactical directives, and rules of engagement.