Afghan Forces Asked US Special Forces on the Ground in Kunduz To Call In Strike on Médecins Sans Frontières

As a lot of outlets are reporting, the head of Special Forces in Afghansistan, General John Campbell, just “corrected” the original claims DOD made after the deadly strike on the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz that US Special Forces were being attacked by stating that the Afghans called in the strike, not US forces.

This is supposed to correct the claim US special forces said they were being attacked — made by people all the way up to Defense Secretary Ash Carter:

SEC. CARTER:  I want to be careful about what I say, because I don’t want to get out in front of the investigation.  But I think, Lita, in answer to your question, I think our current understanding, again, understanding that an investigation is going on and early facts can be misleading, is that yes, there was American air action in that area, and that American forces there were engaged in the general vicinity.

And at some point in the course of the events there did report that they, themselves, were coming under attack.  That much I think we can safely say, Lita, at this point.

Ultimately, though, the statement changes very little. In his statement, Campbell emphasized that American forces on the ground have the inherent right to self-defense. And, after several qualifying questions, Campbell finally clarified what his statement didn’t make clear but should have: that the Afghans asked Special Forces on the ground in Kunduz to call in a strike.

Q: To make it crystal clear: there were no US JTACs, under fire, at the tactical level, when this air strike was called in?

General John Campbell: What I said was that the Afghans asked for air support from a Special Forces team that we have on the ground to train, advise, and assist, in Kunduz. The initial statement that went out was that US Forces were under direct fire contact and what I’m doing is correcting that statement here.

When asked if the Special Forces were with the Afghans who claimed to be under fire — and about any Rules of Engagement that should have prevented such an attack — Campbell just said those details would come out later in the investigation.

There are two other details in Campbell’s statement that hints at where this is going. First, Campbell said “several civilians were accidentally struck” in an attack purportedly targeting the Taliban. At last count there were at least 22 people killed in the attack, including 3 children. I’m a bit concerned about Campbell’s understanding of the word “several.”

In addition, Campbell made a human shield argument about the Taliban — softened only slightly from those used over the weekend.

Unfortunately the Taliban have decided to remain in the city and fight from within, knowingly putting civilians at significant risk of harm.

The statement all seems to be more about shifting blame on the Afghans rather than the US special forces who somehow didn’t correct their claim that a hospital was attacking them, and to lay the claim that those same people are just advising Afghans rather than actually fighting. (Campbell is back in DC to testify to Congress, so these claims will become very convenient immediately.)

But overall, the explanation remains the same. US special forces on the ground in Kunduz called in strikes that — in probably 3 attacking passes — took out a hospital.

Update: MSF General Director Christopher Stokes is no more impressed than me.

Today the U.S. government has admitted that it was their airstrike that hit our hospital in Kunduz and killed 22 patients and MSF staff. Their description of the attack keeps changing – from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government. The reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs. The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The U.S. military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the U.S. and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

34 replies
  1. scribe says:

    Ah, yes – he “doesn’t want to get out in front of the investigation” and then conveniently tells the investigators what was happening on the ground, based, of course, on reports handed up the chain to him by the same jokers who pulled the trigger on this massacre. Does anyone with a brain think that somehow the investigation will come out in a way that does anything other than exonerate the Americans?
    .
    Puhleeze.
    .
    Oh, and BTW: German media reported (in more detail, yesterday) that many of the casualties among patients involved them being burnt – either to death or after death – in their beds.
    .
    Where they doubtlessly, the American military will tell us, were fighting a firefight while supine in hospital beds before dying as combatants.
    .
    Congratulations have to go out to Barack Obama who, AFAIK, is the first Nobel Peace Prize winner (2009, for, being Barack Obama, I guess) to have carried out (through minions, to be sure) a fatal war crime on another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Medicins Sans Frontieres (1999, for helping people live by giving them medical treatment. In hospitals. Which are protected by the Geneva Convention.). This might be a unique achievement in world history and one we hope will never be repeated. But Hope is all we have, because he sure isn’t listening to anyone who contradicts or even questions him.
    .
    I just have to wonder whether anyone has yet devised the ritual of apotheosis to be used in the United States.

    • emptywheel says:

      When I pointed that out on Twitter someone responded that he always thought Kissinger was going to be the first to pull that off.

      • scribe says:

        I never had given it much thought before. But, if you’d have asked me before this massacre who would have been more likely, I might have gone with Kissinger, too.
        .
        Bombing hospitals is a bright-line war crime. Sorry, General. No getting around this one, particularly when MSF advised your command in detail on where the hospital was.

  2. Joanne Leon says:

    Immediately after this attack was reported, someone I was chatting with on Twitter said they’d pin it on the Afghan forces. That’s problematic too though because Radio Free Europe had already published a triumphant article about the elite Afghan forces who did this Kunduz operation on their own (reportedly). The article begins with:

    “Afghanistan’s much-maligned security forces were facing their greatest challenge yet”
    http://www.juancole.com/2015/10/afghanistans-recovering-taliban.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

    It then went on to say how spectacularly they had performed. I’m shocked that the article is still there. I have screencaps from early on, maybe it’s been changed. I haven’t checked.

    And yeah, “several” is a pretty surprising way to describe the casualties unless you’re going to find some way to claim most of them were combatants. Sickens me.

  3. bevin says:

    “Campbell emphasized that American forces on the ground have the inherent right to self-defense. ”

    The underlying reality is that those controlling the airstrike will have known precisely that the target, whose exact position and co-ordinates were clearly understood, was this hospital. As various propagandists have been at enormous pains to point out- with the intention of discrediting ISIS’s Russian enemies- such is the nature of these smart bombs that they hit what they are meant to hit. At least where buildings are concerned.
    And these bombs were meant to hit the MSF Hospital.
    Whoever ‘called in’ the attack- and to regard the Afghan Army as anything other than a US tool, trained by the US and employing US tactics is naive- matters little. What matters is that a deliberate decision was made to attack a target which had-in effect- a Red Cross on the roof.
    Was this a mistake? Was the Serbian TV station hit by mistake? Was the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade bombed in error? Was the Palestine(?) Hotel in Baghdad shelled inadvertantly?
    The sinister aspect of this incident is that it seems to suggest that the die has been cast and that any thought of catering to Muslim- and non-European- public opinion has been abandoned. Sheer and uncontrolled terror is the order of the day. And the only hope that people in places like Afghanistan have left is that China and Russia will exercise military vetoes on the “west” for whom most of the world is now Gaza and everyone in it is a target.
    The declining Empire is slipping into that nihilism which is close to a death wish, what the Israeli fascists call the Sampson option: either victory or death. With thousands of nuclear weapons available the danger is unprecedented.

  4. GKJames says:

    Is there an update as to reports that even after the US was informed that it was shooting up a hospital, the bombing continued?

    • JohnT says:

      They knew it was a hospital beforehand

      OCTOBER 3, 2015 — Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) condemns in the strongest possible terms the horrific bombing of its hospital in Kunduz, which was full of staff and patients. MSF wishes to clarify that all parties to the conflict, including in Kabul and Washington, were clearly informed of the precise location (GPS Coordinates) of the MSF facilities in Kunduz, including the hospital, guesthouse, office and an outreach stabilization unit in Chardara northwest of Kunduz.

      http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/afghanistan-msf-staff-killed-hospital-partially-destroyed-kunduz

      • gkjames says:

        Right, but I think that refers to a previous, more general notice. I’m talking about the notice reportedly sent after the first bombardment in this particular case, which was followed by more bombardment.

  5. Khepry Quixote says:

    When one is targeting a building of any kind, “several civilians were accidentally struck” is not an accurate phrase. The building in question was targeted intentionally and likewise any resulting casualties were intentional as well. Either 1) the U.S. was duped into bombing the building by its nominal “allies” and was therefore stupid for having done so (as MSF had previously provided the exact coordinates of its hospital to all interested parties), or 2) the U.S. knew it was bombing the hospital and was therefore stupid for having done so. Either way, it was both a stupid and criminal action. If the U.S. maintains a log of latitudes and longitudes of vital infrastructure, of which hospitals (even temporary ones) qualify as “vital,” then the U.S. knew what it was bombing. If not, then the U.S. was stupid for not having such a log in place after 14 years of war. In this matter, I believe that a war crimes trial is warranted, if only as a mentions of purging the ignorant from the ranks of the military.

  6. Don Bacon says:

    Attacking hospitals is nothing new for US forces. from the web–
    .
    After the American “terror war elections” came the post-election U.S. terror attack in Iraq. George Bush figured he would celebrate his reelection with a bang: send the Marines into the Iraq rebel stronghold of Falluja and flush out the varmints. That would show the world that he means business. At mid-day on Wednesday, November 3, Democrat John Kerry conceded the election in a phone call to the White House. By Saturday, November 6, the assault on Falluja began. U.S. rockets took out their first target: the Hai Nazal Hospital, a new facility that was just about ready to open its doors. A spokesman for the First Marines Expeditionary Force said, “A hospital was not on the target list.” But there it is, reduced to a pile of rubble. Then on Sunday night the Special Forces stormed the Falluja General Hospital. They rounded up all the doctors, pushed them face down on the floor and handcuffed them with plastic straps behind their backs. With the hospital occupied, those wounded by the U.S. aerial bombings headed to the Falluja Central Health Clinic. And so at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, November 9, U.S. warplanes bombed that clinic as well, killing 35 patients, 15 medics, 4 nurses, 5 support staff and 4 doctors, according to a doctor who survived (The Nation, 13 December). U.S. fire also targeted an ambulance, killing five patients and the driver. —internationalist (with photos)
    .
    An Air Force AC-130 Special Operations Command gunship may have carried out the strike in Afghanistan that allegedly hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the embattled northern city of Kunduz, killing at least 22, including 12 staffers. One model of the AC-130 – the AC-130H Spectre – carries a 105mm M102 howitzer and a 40 mm L/60 Bofors cannon. Other versions – the AC-130W Stinger II and AC-130J — can carry AGM-176 Griffin missiles and GBU-53/B SDB II small diameter precision bombs.
    .
    General John Francis Campbell is a United States Army general who is the current commander of the Resolute Support Mission and United States Forces—Afghanistan, a post he assumed on August 26, 2014.

  7. Don Bacon says:

    AC-130 info
    .
    The American warplane that apparently struck a Doctors Without Borders clinic in the embattled city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan on October 3, killing 22 people, was probably an AC-130 gunship — a lumbering, four-engine transport modified to carry a powerful arsenal of side-firing guns.
    .
    Maybe the gunship’s crew knew exactly where the clinic was in Kunduz, maybe it didn’t. Maybe there were Taliban fighters nearby, maybe there weren’t.
    .
    Regardless, the AC-130 blasted the vicinity of the clinic for more than an hour, repeatedly striking the medical facility. And the U.S. military’s lax rules allowed it to happen.
    .
    Packed floor to ceiling with high-tech sensors and radios and boasting a wide range of weaponry including 25-millimeter and 40-millimeter cannons plus a 105-millimeter howitzer, the AC-130 is supposed to be more accurate than other warplanes — and thus safer for innocent civilians in the line of fire.
    .
    But the Pentagon’s rules for using the gunships actually make them less safe. Eager to take advantage of the AC-130’s firepower, the military actually requires relatively little scrutiny of the target area before a gunship crews opens fire, compared to the much greater restrictions the Defense Department imposes on the pilots of other aircraft types. . . .–DailyBeast

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Campbell would have been briefed on whether US forces were with the Afghans whom the US is blaming for calling in this air strike. He’s avoiding answering the question by saying “it” will come out later. Right. Check’s in the mail. One reason for the dissembling would be that if the forces were acting together, the Afghan “request” wouldn’t be much of a cutout: US personnel should have been as informed as the Afghans about requesting an air strike and why, which would put the blame back on the US.

    Even if Afghan forces operated independently and didn’t recognize the DWB facility as a hospital, that would likely be a training and command failure, much of which flows back to the US. Further, it seems likely that standard protocol would have been for DWB to report this facility’s location to US and Afghan HQs – for the express purpose of putting a cordon around it to avoid attack. Nevertheless, it seems to have been specifically targeted by US personnel who authorized this air strike. I expect we will be treated to full blown damage control exercise, replete with passive voice constructions and empty apologies for behavior that will not change and devoid of compensation which will not be paid. Empires never apologize; it’s a sign of weakness, or at least humanity.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “t last count there were at least 22 people killed in the attack, including 3 children. I’m a bit concerned about Campbell’s understanding of the word “several.””

    I understood that the usual limit per occurence on killing innocent civilians without liability for excessive collateral damage was thirty. No harm, no foul here then.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Does this event suggest that the US no longer cares what targets it hits? Have we adopted the simplistic attitude that if “our boys” call in for help, we give it, pronto, no ifs, ands or buts? That would be consistent with the idea that military intelligence is an oxymoron, so just fire from the hip, or the belly of the aircraft. Such Cheney-like rules of engagement would be, in effect, no rules at all, which seems to be how we like it. Pity about the people, though.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    According to Greenwald, MSF last notified the USG of its hospital’s GPS location on Sept. 29th. The hospital, apparently the only one in northeastern Afghanistan providing major medical care, also was apparently criticized by Afghan and US govts for providing medical aid to all comers, regardless of affiliation. (A brief look at MSF’s website might make clear it feels that’s its mission.) I guess we can’t have interlopers deciding who lives and who dies in our empire. Allegedly providing medical care to alleged enemy combatants is aiding and abetting the enemy and sufficient rationale to justify the hospital’s destruction. After we’ve pacified the region, I suppose we’ll send Hawkeye, Trapper John and company to fill the gap we’ve handily created. They at least should be more discriminating in who they give aid and comfort to.

    • Colonel_Flagg says:

      Minor quibble to an otherwise serious-as-a-heart-attack topic: Hawkeye & Trapper treated all, including North Koreans and made no bones about it.

      It was ferret face (Maj Burns) and people like Col Flagg who wanted to screw over the NK wounded.

      Credit where credit is due.

    • P J Evans says:

      MSF is about as neutral as it’s possible to be. This really was a stupid, extremely stupid, abysmally stupid thing to have done.

      I do wonder if the local warlord governor had some enemies there that he wanted taken out in a way that wouldn’t be obviously tracked to him.

  12. orionATL says:

    let’z cute the crap:

    – there is no one the us. military and paramilitary will not kill, at will.

    the strike on the hospital by american air force warplanes was

    – certainly no accident,

    – certainly calculated for cost benefit

    – certainly designed to send a message, whatever the cost of that messaging in “collateral damage”, aka, burned, crushed, and headless bodies, bodies full of concrete shrapnel.

    – designed to send the message “there is no place you can hide, even a hospital”

    – designed to send the medical organization the message “never act in any wsy that can serve to shield our enemy.”

    this bombing act was analogous to the killing a couple of years ago of two kidnapped civilians because their supporters refused to heed an american goverment edict about not paying ransom.

    one wonders what the nsa’s role in this was. did it involve actions similar to those nsa intercepts targeting a top al-jazeera journalist communicating (because he was a journalist) with a-q?

    • orionATL says:

      somehow it seems approriate to make note here of the suborning of medical and psychological military personnel in the torture of american military’s prisoners at the guantanamo military base.

      and to mention also the u.s. dept of defense’s recent release of its new “war manual” which includes severe restrictions and punishments on journalists.

      one conclusion that can be drawn from the last 15 years of combat is that the u.s. military has become an out-of-control monster of aggression, most curiously, during a time of relatively trivial threat to the security of the u.s.

  13. RUKidding says:

    Good post and comments. Not much to add, except when I first heard about this murderous attack on MSF hospital, my instant thought was: it was pre-meditated, deliberate, and Team USA knew what the intended target was, a hospital.
    *
    Our tax dollar$ at work. No doubt, the Afghani’s are continuing to greet us as liberators, just as their “cousins” did in Iraq.

  14. Don Bacon says:

    There’s never a shortage of rumors in the military, where people are trained to blow up stuff and kill people. One rumor could be – could be – that the C-130 loss one day earlier at Jalalabad Airfield killing six airmen and five (American?) contractors was due to enemy fire. And then – payback.
    .
    War is hell, and as orionATL says above there’s no problem killing foreigners. We came, we saw, they died, to paraphrase a US politician. It usually doesn’t even make the news, this event being an exception. War crime? War itself is a crime.

    • orionATL says:

      hadn’t heard rumors about the c-130, a lumbering target if true.

      but an attack on a hospital in retaliation, would be an example of what has concerned me for a long time – the currently badly disciplined american military, badly disciplined and badly led from the top down.

      and that badly disciplined – and hence badly trained- military’s influence on, dare we say it, american secular (non-natsec) society, has been devastating for citizen constitutinal rights vis-a-vis their government thanks to congressgoobers’ political cowardice and the state’s secret argument in the judiciary; the infiltration of our military into the police cadres; the infiltration of our military more generally into domestic society (nfl flyovers, local swat teams and equipment); and the pointless, illegal intrusion of the nsa into private domestic american conversations.

      has it ever been recognized by our current fuck-the-citizenry-we’re-looking-out-for-the-welfare-of-the-judiciary federal judges that the the state’s secrets argument is a cousin of the states’ rights argument – one part or another of our government, so the generalized argument goes, can tell the rest of us to shove our legal concerns and our pleas for redress where the light of reason never shines.

      • orionATL says:

        actually, the proper charactetization of our current military is not merely “poorly disciplined” it is “law-breaking”, law-breaking in spades.

  15. jo6pac says:

    Great news Amerika isn’t responsible because Amerika proxy did it. I feel so much better know. What F$$$$$$ joke except on those that died trying to do the right thing. It’s nothing new for Amerikas neo-conns

  16. TBob says:

    The USAF, undoubtedly the most candy-assed branch of the US Armed Forces (just ask, well, anyone but a USAFfer) has the broadest authority and capability (of any branch of the US Armed Forces) for blowing up shit. The USAF blows up shit using tactics and hardware that maximize minimal injury to the hardware and personnel doing the blowing up of shit. If you think they give a rat’s ass about whose shit is being blown up (besides their own) you would be wrong. If the NRA were a branch of the military they would be just like the USAF. It’s good to be king.

  17. John Powers says:

    I am unsure of the command structure in Afghanistan, but I don’t think General Campbell is “head of Special Forces in Afghansistan.” General Campbell is commander of the Resolute Support Mission, and Brig. Gen. Sean P. Swindell commands Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, Afghanistan. I am not military, but I presume that Brig. Gen. Sean P. Swindell’s direct superior is General Joseph L. Votel commander of United States Special Operations Command. Certainly General Campbell is the highest ranking US military commander in Afghanistan, but the Resolute Support Mission and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel are separate operations with different command chains.

  18. Don Bacon says:

    Plus the US military knows it’s failed yet again. Based on an analysis by The Long War Journal, 29 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts are under Taliban control, and another 36 districts are contested.
    .
    General Campbell, who is in Washington to testify to Congress this week about the American troop presence in Afghanistan.
    .
    Preview: “Again, I’ve been very public that the Afghan security forces continue to get better and better, and I’m very proud and honored to serve with them three times in Afghanistan. Where they were just a couple of years ago to where they are today is pretty astounding. And I think that they continue to be very, very resilient and they continue to need our support in areas that we’ve identified years ago that would be very, very tough for any army: intelligence, logistics, fire support.” – General Campbell
    .
    And then, the other shoe (probably): The US should stay in Afghanistan forever.

  19. Don Bacon says:

    Oh, I just found this.
    May 9, 2011: MajGen John Campbell: “But I really do think that as people look back, and they’ll say 2010 was the year in Afghanistan. It’s the year that we finally put more resources in here. We had the right leadership, the right strategy. And I think that was a turning point.”
    .
    Campbell was kissing up to Petraeus (2010 to 2011 in Afghanistan) with his “right leadership.”–It paid off for Campbell.

    • RUKidding says:

      Thanks for that newsy tidbit. Color me utterly unsurprised. The USA Military is an utter disgrace. All one has to do is look at Petraeus as Example Numero Uno and the trickle down to crapification that occurs from there.
      *
      I have no tv and listen to radio sparingly. What little I glean from the propaganda “media” is the US Military rushing to get out in front of this story and blame it on someone or something else. Same as it ever was.
      *
      Behold: Our frickin’ tax dollar$ at work.

  20. Giles Byles says:

    A few months from now, behind the scenes, the perps will be rewarded with kudos, bonuses & promotions.

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