The Two Strands of (Non) Accountability on Kunduz

Contrary to much sloppy reporting, General Campbell did not change his story about the Kunduz strike in his testimony Tuesday. As I noted Monday, towards the end of his press conference that day, Campbell admitted, “Afghans asked for air support from a Special Forces team that we have on the ground to train, advise, and assist, in Kunduz,” which is precisely what some people claim was “new” yesterday.

The question, then, should turn to what the relationship between the US Special Forces who called in the strike and the Afghans who asked for it was — and what the thinking of both was. On that point, Campbell dodged, claiming that (and any details about Rules of Engagement) would come out in the investigation. Campbell was very insistent that SOF was only on the ground for a train, advise, and assist mission. But that clearly addressed their general status, not what they were doing at the moment the strikes were called in. And DOD-sourced reporting from last week made it clear US forces were doing more than training, advising, and assisting just days before the attack on Médecins Sans Frontières.

U.S. Special Forces traded fire with Taliban insurgents in the northern city of Kunduz, the U.S. military said Friday, a rare direct ground engagement for American troops stationed in the country.

The clash on Thursday marked the first time U.S. ground forces are known to have directly fought the Taliban since the militants stormed Kunduz on Monday. It came as the U.S. stepped up airstrikes this week against Taliban targets in Kunduz province and elsewhere in the country’s north.

U.S. Special Forces advisers “encountered an insurgent threat in Kunduz city” and “returned fire in self-defense to eliminate the threat,” said U.S. Army Col. Brian Tribus, spokesman for American and allied troops in Afghanistan.

About 100 U.S. and coalition special-operations forces advisers were deployed to Kunduz earlier this week to provide tactical guidance to their Afghan counterparts as they fought to reclaim the provincial capital from the Taliban.

So on Friday, DOD was willing to admit our TAA mission actually involved direct fire. The first reports from the field said that in response to direct fire, SOF called in air strikes. But as MSF called for investigations into a war crime, DOD switched that part of the story to a strict TAA role, without telling us where the forces who called in the strike were, or what they were doing.

Without answering that question, two stories have made it clear that whoever called in the strikes didn’t do what they should have with regards to vetting the strikes. There’s this WaPo story that notes AC-130 strikes, like that used in this attack, rely on visual targeting assist from the ground.

Unlike other military fixed-wing aircraft, an AC-130 is requested differently. While a jet requires a map coordinate to engage its target, the AC-130 relies on direction (a compass heading) and a distance to the enemy target from the friendly forces engaged on the ground. In short, it relies on visual targeting.

This difference might explain why the hospital was targeted even though Doctors Without Borders said it had given U.S. and Afghan forces its map coordinates before.

“It’s a visual acuity aircraft,” said a U.S. close-air support pilot who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his active-duty status. “An AC-130 finds the friendly force, then fires over their left or right shoulder.”

The pilot went on to add that an AC-130 does not enter enemy airspace and look for targets. It specifically has to be guided onto the target by a force on the ground and will fire only after identifying friendly and enemy forces, he said.

It also notes that normally (Thursday’s events notwithstanding) when SOF comes under fire they (among other things) call in air strikes.

These “train, advise and assist” missions are a staple of U.S. Special Forces capabilities and have been conducted extensively in recent years. In combat situations, rather than return fire, U.S. troops on these missions are more likely to help direct communication, casualty evacuation and direct air support from an AC-130, for instance, if it is available.

As a result, there has been little direct contact between U.S. troops and the Taliban since most U.S. forces were relegated to the sidelines when official combat operations ended last year.

Last night, another passive voice-ridden NYT story reports that General Campbell, after promising full transparency, went around DC saying something rather different than what he was saying publicly: that what the WaPo says should have happened probably didn’t.

The American commander in Afghanistan now believes that United States troops who called in an airstrike that decimated a Doctors Without Borders hospital probably did not follow rules that allow for the use of air power only in dire situations, according to American officials familiar with the general’s thinking.

Under those rules, airstrikes can be authorized to kill terrorist suspects, to protect American troops, and in response to requests for help from the Afghan Army in battles that could significantly alter the military landscape in Afghanistan — such as the recent Taliban takeover of Kunduz — but not necessarily smaller firefights. The idea behind the rules of engagement was to give American troops leeway but not see them dragged back into daily, open-ended combat.

In private discussions with officials in Washington, Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander, has expressed his belief that the decision by Special Operations forces operating “in the vicinity” of the Afghan troops in Kunduz likely did not meet any of those criteria, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident.

The Special Operations forces also apparently did not have “eyes on” — that is, were not able to positively identify — the area to be attacked to confirm it was a legitimate target, before calling in the strike, the officials said.

If the NYT reporters who wrote this are aware that the MSF strike was the 12th in Kunduz province last week (to say nothing of the direct engagement by US forces), they failed to hint at that fact — perhaps because it would undermine much of this story.

In any case, even if Campbell’s non-transparent judgements are honest — that what caused the attack from the US stand point was a violation of procedures and/or rules of engagement — that shouldn’t end the story (but it appears to be doing so).

The one part of the story that has changed since Saturday was that the Afghans, and not the Americans, determined a strike was necessary (though that strike had to go through normal channels). Which ought to lead some focus back to what the Afghans were initially saying, which is that Taliban fighters were at the MSF compound (something MSF has vigorously refuted).

“When insurgents try to use civilians and public places to hide, it makes it very, very difficult, and we understand how this can happen,” Koofi said. “You have two choices: either continue operations to clean up, and that might involve attacks in public places, or you just let the Taliban control. In this case, the public understands we went with the first choice, along with our international allies.”

In Kunduz, the acting governor, Hamdullah Danishi, also suggested that the airstrike was warranted.

He said Taliban fighters had been using the Doctors Without Borders compound to plot and carry out attacks across the city, including firing rocket-propelled grenades from the property.

“The hospital campus was 100 percent used by the Taliban,” Danishi said. “The hospital has a vast garden, and the Taliban were there. We tolerated their firing for some time” before responding.

And some focus on the raid Afghan Special Forces launched on the hospital in July is also in order.

Afghan special forces raided a hospital run by medical aid group Médecins Sans Frontières in northern Afghanistan, in search of a suspected Al Qaeda operative being treated there, a commander of the elite force said on Thursday.

Raids on hospitals are rare because they are protected by international law and those run by foreign aid agencies in Afghanistan provide crucial support to war victims, who may travel for days to get assistance.

It was unclear if Wednesday’s raid by a contingent of special forces from the capital, Kabul, had succeeded in capturing its target, Kunduz special forces commander Abdullah told Reuters.

“I was told he was an al Qaeda member being treated at the MSF hospital,” Abdullah said.

Even if Afghan forces genuinely believed the Taliban was operating from within the hospital, there would be a lot of hoops they’d have to jump through before treating it as a legitimate target. If Afghan forces had SOF strike the hospital because they didn’t like that it accepted all people, then it’d be a clear war crime.

The point is, assuming US forces weren’t directly engaged in the fighting and didn’t themselves call in the strike, there are two levels of accountability here: on the Afghans who asked for the strike, and on SOF, which vetted it and carried it out.

If the Afghans deliberately targeted a hospital on unsound grounds, then the strike is in no way an accident — and may have been enabled when Americans failed to follow procedure.

There seems to be a strong desire to ignore the Afghan side of the equation (in part because the Afghans and the US military both want Obama to approve continued troops in Afghanistan). But no one should be declaring this an “accident” or “mistake” without fully accounting for the Afghan decision to call in the strikes. And that hasn’t happened yet.

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.

16 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    Everyone’s missing the easy solution to the Afghanistan problem. The Russians are in Syria now, working to settle things down there. After that, we’ll simply entice them into Afghanistan. I mean, they have pride. If we give them an opportunity to jump into some country and take it over where we have been unsuccessful in doing so, and show the whole world, I think they will do that.
    .
    More on point, I find it hard to believe that an AC-130 relies solely on visual targeting. So they will fly into a contested area and wait for someone to say, “Turn left and fire at that building over there”? That’s insane; truly a recipe for disaster. I simply DO NOT BELIEVE that excuse, which is given by an active duty US pilot who insists on anonymity. You should not believe it either. As Conor Friedersdorf notes, “The very weakest case for withholding a source’s name is when 1) powerful officials 2) with a clear incentive to lie 3) use anonymity to spread a self-serving narrative 4) without accountability 5) on a matter of great consequence. All those conditions are met here.”

    • RobMarine says:

      Bloopie: Not sure what you mean by contested airspace, since the Taliban don’t have an air force. AC-130’s don’t fly into airspace where they’re liable to get jumped by an enemy fighter plane, or where there are sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses on the ground. They fly where those things don’t exist, which allows them to fly out of range/above the usual threats (i.e. small arms-RPG’s and machine guns), and fire down at will.

      The AC-130 is a direct-fire platform, meaning it is looking at what it is shooting at. What I find inexcusable is they obviously didn’t have the MSF facility marked on their maps, despite their command and control element having been (or should have been) directly informed of their presence.

  2. Don Bacon says:

    .
    re: General Campbell’s thinking — the use of air power only in dire situations, according to American officials familiar with the general’s thinking — against Taliban? –naughty naughty general. Go sit in the corner. You are disobeying the CINC.
    .
    Obama has consistently stated – no combat after Dec 2014, only TAA & CT against AQ:
    .
    June 22, 2011
    Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.
    Mar 27. 2014
    2014, therefore, is a pivotal year. Together with our allies and the Afghan government, we have agreed that this is the year we will conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan. Here’s how we will pursue those objectives. First, America’s combat mission will be over by the end of this year. Starting next year, Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country.
    Dec 28, 2014
    Statement by the President on the End of the Combat Mission in Afghanistan
    Today’s ceremony in Kabul marks a milestone for our country. For more than 13 years, ever since nearly 3,000 innocent lives were taken from us on 9/11, our nation has been at war in Afghanistan. Now, thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion. ..At the invitation of the Afghan government, and to preserve the gains we have made together, the United States–along with our allies and partners–will maintain a limited military presence in Afghanistan to train, advise and assist Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda.
    .
    Now why hasn’t Obama reacted to General Campbell disobeying his repeated orders against combat? Doesn’t Obama remember what he read several times off of his TelePrompter?? Do generals just get to do whatever they want to do??? Who’s in charge here????

    • emptywheel says:

      That may be another reason DOD changed its story about whether SOF itself or the Afghans were under attack: because the latter isn’t supposed to be happening. Plus, by switching, you avoid any direct war crimes on US part.

  3. Don Bacon says:

    .
    So now General Campbell has ordered a review of the rules of engagement (ROE) in Afghanistan. But ROE only apply in combat, and Obama has said no more US combat.
    .
    DOD Dictionary– rules of engagement
    Directives issued by competent military authority that delineate the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered. Also called ROE. See also law of war.

  4. seedeevee says:

    To the “untrained” observer it sure does look like the US forces followed someone/someone’s signal to that hospital and really really wanted him/them dead.

  5. KenWInIA says:

    There is a third level of accountability; the pilot. The pilot fired on one building and one building only. He had to be able to see what he was hitting. There are cameras in these planes that automatically film when the guns are firing. Let’s see the videos. Let’s see what the pilot was targeting. Then we’ll know if he was firing at what he thought was a Taliban fighters or not. If he did not know what he was shooting at, then he’s responsible for what he hit.

  6. Les says:

    U.S. forces do not have blanket authority to fulfill every Afghan request for U.S. firepower.

    When President Barack Obama ended the U.S. combat mission, he directed the remaining U.S. forces to focus on training and advising Afghan security forces and on counterterrorism missions. Authority to use force was limited to three circumstances: “force protection,” or the defense of U.S. and allied troops; support of missions targeting remnants of al-Qaida in Afghanistan; and assisting Afghan forces in extreme situations where they faced mass casualties.

    It’s not clear whether any of those three criteria applied to Kunduz. Campbell has said that U.S. forces were not directly threatened at the time, and there is no indication that al-Qaida was present.

    In a report to Congress in June, the Pentagon said U.S. forces were no longer authorized to target individuals based on affiliation with the Taliban or any group other than al-Qaida. It said U.S. forces are permitted to take action against individuals that “pose a direct threat” to U.S. and coalition forces.

    https://www.ksl.com/?sid=36844896

    There are also charges that the Pakistan army was involved in the capture of Kunduz. In the 2001-2008 battle against the Taliban, it’s been reported that as much as a third of the Taliban force was comprised of Pakistan soldiers.

  7. Garrett says:

    Hamdullah Danishi, the current Kunduz governor quoted by the Washington Post, is a strong proponent of the militias that brought so much trouble to Kunduz. I’d see him as an Afghan, with an agenda and specific political affiliations, rather than as speaking for the Afghans, when he gets quoted in the newspapers. Though his side of things seems to be ascending now. AAN has some of the complex details of a political dispute, Danishi and others, versus the previous governor, on trying to disband the militias.

  8. Don Bacon says:

    from article in the Stars & Stripes today (paywall)

    . . .U.S. forces do not have blanket authority to fulfill every Afghan request for U.S. firepower.
    .
    When President Barack Obama ended the U.S. combat mission, he directed the remaining U.S. forces to focus on training and advising Afghan security forces and on counterterrorism missions. Authority to use force was limited to three circumstances: “force protection,” or the defense of U.S. and allied troops; support of missions targeting remnants of al-Qaida in Afghanistan; and assisting Afghan forces in extreme situations where they faced mass casualties.

  9. Don Bacon says:

    To recap Campbell’s testimony and the Stripes article:
    -Afghan forces fighting to retake Kunduz from the Taliban requested U.S. air power,
    -the decision to provide airstrikes was a U.S. decision, made within the U.S. chain of command,
    -the airstrike was a mistake, even if it hadn’t been a hospital, and every U.S. service member in Afghanistan will be retrained on the circumstances in which U.S. firepower can be used.
    .
    Why was the hospital targeted? We don’t know.

  10. Don Bacon says:

    MSF news release Oct 6, waiting for release from press briefing Oct 7–
    .
    MSF Denounces Blatant Breach of International Humanitarian Law
    October 06, 2015
    Statement by Dr Joanne Liu, President, MSF International
    .
    For four years, the MSF trauma center in Kunduz was the only facility of its kind in northeastern Afghanistan, offering essential medical and surgical care. On Saturday, October 3, this came to an end when the hospital was deliberately bombed. Twelve MSF staff and 10 patients, including three children, were killed, and 37 people were injured, including 19 members of the MSF team. The attack was unacceptable.

  11. James Joyce says:

    The hospital was bombed for treating Taliban fighters… It is the only rational reason for such evil.

    We suck…

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