WASHINGTON — The Pentagon announced Friday that 12 military personnel would be disciplined for the deadly U.S. strike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in October, but maintained that it was not a war crime because it resulted from unintentional human error and equipment failure.
The military said some personnel involved “failed to comply with the rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict,” and that a general officer was among those facing discipline for their roles in the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital.
Their punishments include suspension and removal from command, letters of reprimand, formal counseling and extensive retraining. These punishments would have adverse effects on promotion of the personnel involved, according to the U.S. military.
Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, made the announcement at a news conference in Washington. The investigation had identified 16 service personnel that had “warranted consideration for appropriate administrative or disciplinary action.”
“The comprehensive investigation concluded that this tragic incident was caused by a combination of human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures,” Votel said in explaining the decision not to regard the incident as a war crime. He also said that the aircrew were “unaware” that they were firing on a hospital.
The hospital was operated by the non-governmental organization Doctors without Borders, also know as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which was located approximately 400 meters from the intended target, a Taliban-controlled site, according to the report.
Doctors Without Borders says that more than 100 patients were admitted to the hospital when it was struck.
Pablo Marco, operations manager for Doctors Without Borders in the Middle East, told CNN Thursday that his group would continue to push for an independent external investigation into the strike.
“We just need to remember that since the beginning, MSF has asked for an independent investigation to really understand and to make clear what happened in Kunduz and that unfortunately despite the fact that the U.S. has had an internal investigation, this independent investigation hasn’t happened yet and we keep asking for it,” he said.
At the news conference, Votel stressed, “We extend our deepest condolences to those injured and to the families of those killed in this tragic incident,” adding that the Pentagon was “fully committed to learning from this tragedy and minimizing the risk of civilian casualties during future combat operations.”
“This was an extreme situation we were dealing with,” Votel said, noting that the Taliban in the area were in possession of a surface-to-air missile, a rarity in the Afghanistan conflict.
He noted that the investigation was overseen by then-commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, and was carried out by three U.S. generals who “were brought in from outside Afghanistan in order to provide an objective perspective.” The investigators interviewed 65 witnesses, including personnel at the trauma center and members of U.S. and Afghan militaries, and reviewed thousands of documents.
According the report, “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 Pentagon concluded last year that Doctors Without Borders had followed all proper procedures in notifying the U.S. of the location of the hospital. The group “did everything right,” a U.S. official said in October.
Votel said that Campbell had directed a review of the targeting process, rules of engagement, condolence payments to more than 170 individuals and families affected, and $5.7 million to be allocated for the construction of new medical facilities in Kunduz.
The investigation report comes as another Doctors Without Borders hospital in Syria was bombed this week, a strike that the NGO says killed 50 people and was carried out by Russian and Syrian warplanes. “This hospital is very well known,” Marco said, adding that there were “many chances that this was deliberate”.
Laura Koran contributed to this report