WASHINGTON — Immediately after the U.S. killed at least 30 people in a devastating airstrike on a charity hospital, Afghanistan’s national security adviser told a European diplomat his country would take responsibility because “we are without doubt, 100 percent convinced the place was occupied by Taliban,” according to notes of the meeting reviewed by The Associated Press.
More than a month later, no evidence has emerged to support that assertion. Eyewitnesses tell the AP they saw no gunmen at the hospital.
Instead, there are mounting indications the U.S. military relied heavily on Afghan allies who resented the internationally run Doctors Without Borders hospital, which treated Afghan security forces and Taliban alike but says it refused to admit armed men.
The new evidence includes details the AP has learned about the location of American troops during the attack. The U.S. special forces unit whose commander called in the strike was under fire in the Kunduz provincial governor’s compound a half-mile away from the hospital, according to a former intelligence official who has reviewed documents describing the incident. The commander could not see the medical facility — so couldn’t know firsthand whether the Taliban were using it as a base — and sought the attack on the recommendation of Afghan forces, the official said.
Members of the unit have told Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, that they were unaware their target was a functioning hospital until the attack was over, said Joe Kasper, Hunter’s spokesman.
Looking ahead, the strike raises questions about whether the U.S. military can rely on intelligence from Afghan allies in a war in which small contingents of Americans will increasingly fight with larger units of local forces.
Also at issue is how the target was vetted. American commanders, with sophisticated information technology at their disposal, allowed the strike to go forward despite reports in their databases that the hospital was functioning. Even if armed Taliban fighters had been hiding inside, the U.S. acknowledges it would not have been justified in destroying a working hospital filled with wounded patients.
Jailani, a 31-year-old mechanic who uses only one name, says he was at the hospital to see his brother-in-law, Ibrahim, who was admitted two days before the airstrike.
“On the day of the attack I was in the hospital from 9 a.m. until 5 a.m. During that time, the Taliban came in without guns, as patients or accompanying their patients, or sometimes they came to take their dead out,” he said. “They did not have permission to enter the hospital with their guns.”
President Barack Obama has apologized for the attack. The Pentagon has said it was a mistake that resulted from both human and technical errors, and it is investigating, along with NATO and the Afghan government.
“No other nation in the history of warfare has gone to the lengths we do to avoid civilian casualties,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said in a statement. “And when we make a mistake, we will not only own up to it, we will also scrutinize all of the facts to learn from them so that it never happens again.”
The attack by an AC-130 gunship came after days of heavy fighting in the northern Afghanistan city. About 35 members of the 3rd Special Forces Group had been helping about 100 Afghan special forces soldiers retake Kunduz from the Taliban, the former U.S. intelligence official said. From their position in the governor’s compound, they came under heavy assault by Taliban fighters, and sought to use air power to destroy the Taliban’s remaining command and control nodes around the city.
The Afghans insisted the hospital was one of those command centers, and urged that it be destroyed, the former official said.
The AP has reported that some American intelligence suggested the Taliban were using the hospital. Special forces and Army intelligence analysts were sifting through reports of heavy weapons at the compound, and they were tracking a Pakistani intelligence operative they believed was there.
It’s unclear how much of that intelligence came from Afghan special forces. They had raided the hospital in July, seeking an al-Qaida member they believed was being treated, despite protests from Doctors Without Borders. After the American air attack, the Afghan soldiers rushed in, looking for Taliban fighters, Doctors Without Borders said.
The U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group knew the hospital was treating patients, according to a daily log by one of its senior officers written Oct. 2.
But 3rd Group also believed the compound was under the control of the Taliban, the daily log says, without explaining why. That belief was so pervasive in the Pentagon that Carter Malkasian, a senior adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emailed Doctors without Borders two days before the attack to ask about it. He was told it wasn’t true.
It’s not clear exactly what the 3rd Group commander who directed the strike knew about the hospital, and why he made the decision to attack. Nor is it known who in the chain of command reviewed and approved the decision, or what those people knew.
Afghan officials say their forces were also a half mile away, and therefore could not have been under direct fire from the hospital.
Drawing electricity from generators, the hospital was among the only brightly lit buildings in Kunduz at night, Doctors Without Borders has said.
In the hours after the strike, Afghan national security adviser Hanif Atmar, told a European diplomat he had the explicit authority of President Ashraf Ghani to declare the government of Afghanistan would take full responsibility for the airstrike. The AP is not naming the diplomat because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
“There was no doubt whatsoever that the Taliban were inside the hospital, that they took it over, thus violating its sanctity,” notes of the meeting quote Atmar as saying.
Sarwar Hussain, spokesman for the Kunduz chief of police, told the AP, “The Taliban were around the compound and were killed when the compound was hit.”
Hamdullah Danishi, the acting governor of Kunduz, said Afghan security forces needed air support that day, “not only for the MSF compound but for every place the Taliban were fighting.”
The Taliban, he said, “used residential areas and civilians as shields, including civilian homes, health centers, schools, mosques and public places. This is why we say the Taliban hid during the attack inside the (hospital) compound and in other places.”
O’Donnell reported from Kabul and Kunduz. Follow Ken Dilanian on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KenDilanianAP; Follow Lynne O’Donnell at https://twitter.com/lynnekodonnell