WASHINGTON — American special operations analysts were gathering intelligence on an Afghan hospital days before it was destroyed by a U.S. military attack because they believed it was being used by a Pakistani operative to coordinate Taliban activity, The Associated Press has learned.
It’s unclear whether commanders who unleashed the AC-130 gunship on the hospital — killing at least 22 patients and hospital staff — were aware that the site was a hospital or knew about the allegations of possible enemy activity. The Pentagon initially said the attack was to protect U.S. troops engaged in a firefight and has since said it was a mistake.
The special operations analysts had assembled a dossier that included maps with the hospital circled, along with indications that intelligence agencies were tracking the location of the Pakistani operative and activity reports based on overhead surveillance, according to a former intelligence official familiar with the material. The intelligence suggested the hospital was being used as a Taliban command and control center and may have housed heavy weapons.
After the attack — which came amidst a battle to retake the northern Afghan city of Kunduz from the Taliban — some U.S. analysts assessed that the strike had been justified, the former officer says. They concluded that the Pakistani, believed to have been working for his country’s Inter-Service Intelligence directorate, had been killed.
No evidence has surfaced publicly suggesting a Pakistani died in the attack, and Doctors without Borders, the international organization that ran the hospital, says none of its staff was Pakistani.
The top U.S. officer in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, has said the strike was a mistake, but he has not explained exactly how it happened or who granted final approval. He also told Congress he was ordering all personnel in Afghanistan to be retrained on the rules governing the circumstances under which strikes are acceptable.
The new details about the military’s suspicions that the hospital was being misused complicate an already murky picture and add to the unanswered questions about one of the worst civilian casualty incidents of the Afghan war. They also raise the possibility of a breakdown in intelligence sharing and communication across the military chain of command.
“As Gen. Campbell has said, we would never intentionally target a protected medical facility,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement. “We have confidence that the ongoing investigations into this tragic incident will uncover exactly what happened and why this hospital was mistakenly struck.”
Doctors without Borders has condemned the bombing as a war crime. The organization says the strike killed 12 hospital staff and 10 patients. It insists that no gunmen, weapons or ammunition were in the building. The U.S. and Afghan governments have launched three separate investigations. President Barack Obama has apologized, but Doctors without Borders is calling for an international probe.
Doctors without Borders officials say the U.S. airplane made five separate strafing runs over an hour, directing heavy fire on the main hospital building, which contained the emergency room and intensive care unit. Surrounding buildings were not struck, they say.
Typically, pilots flying air support missions would have maps showing protected sites such as hospitals and mosques. If commanders concluded that enemies were operating from a protected site, they would follow procedures designed to minimize civilian casualties. That would generally mean surrounding a building with troops, not blowing it to bits from the air.
What the new details suggest “is that the hospital was intentionally targeted, killing at least 22 patients and MSF staff,” said Meinie Nicolai, president of the operational directorate of Doctors without Borders, which is also known by its French initials MSF. “This would amount to a premeditated massacre.”
By one U.S. account from the scene, American and Afghan troops were under fire in the area.
Nicolai said in an email exchange that the group’s staff “reported a calm night and that there were no armed combatants, nor active fighting in or from the compound prior to the airstrikes.”
According to the former intelligence officer, the commander on the ground has told superiors he was in the worst firefight of his career while taking fire from the building, which he said he did not know was a hospital. He requested the gunship strike. In that scenario, it’s not readily apparent why his unit couldn’t have retreated. The hospital is within a compound surrounded by a 12-foot wall.
The intelligence analysts who were gathering information about suspected Taliban activity at the hospital were located in various bases around Afghanistan, and were exchanging information over classified military intelligence systems. Typically, a decision to order a strike in a populated area would require many layers of approval and intelligence analysis of the potential impacts and civilian casualties.
It would be significant if U.S. intelligence had concluded that Pakistani spies were continuing to play an active role helping the Taliban. The U.S. and Afghan governments have long accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban, but U.S. rhetoric on the issue has cooled over the past year as American-Pakistani counterterrorism cooperation has improved.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Josh Lederman contributed to this story.
Follow Ken Dilanian on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KenDilanianAP