Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

16 People Disciplined After Kunduz Hospital Airstrike, But Questions Remain


We learn more today about what went wrong when a U.S. war plane repeatedly struck a hospital.


It happened last October in Afghanistan. Doctors Without Borders ran the hospital in the city of Kunduz. Now some military personnel are being disciplined.

INSKEEP: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in our studios to talk about this. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thanks in coming. Who's being held accountable?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, a total of 16 U.S. service members, including a two-star general, a special forces commander who was on the ground, various officers. Some were removed from command shortly after this happened. Others were given letters of reprimand. So they could be career-enders. But there are no criminal charges here. It was just a series of mistakes, according to the Pentagon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tom, you know, no doubt that sounds serious from their perspective, but maybe not so serious a punishment if you're Doctors Without Borders. You know, they called this a war crime.

BOWMAN: They did label this a war crime. But the Pentagon says there was no intent here or disproportionate force which could lead to a war crime charge. So the Pentagon is saying there were a series of mistakes here, both human and technical and pretty much right from the start. They say the crew of this AC-130 gunship, which is basically a flying battleship...


BOWMAN: ...Did not get a mission brief when they took off. They got the right coordinates for the target, but apparently they thought they were taking fire. So they moved away from the target, and that kind of messed up the targeting system...

INSKEEP: Wait a minute, so you're saying that they had the proper target. They had the proper location of the target, but chose, themselves, to aim at something else?

BOWMAN: Well, what happened was they got the intended target...


BOWMAN: ...They got the right coordinates, but as they moved away, the targeting system pointed in the wrong direction.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: It pointed to a field. So what they did, unbelievably, is they looked for a building that matched the description of the target.

INSKEEP: And so they did this visually? They just decided this looks like what we should be shooting at and then began shooting at that.

BOWMAN: That's right. It matches the description of the intended target. What's interesting too is they weren't taking any fire from this hospital building, obviously.

INSKEEP: And they continued shooting at it for quite some time, didn't they?

BOWMAN: As long as an hour.

INSKEEP: As long as an hour.

BOWMAN: And again, this is a very - this is an amazing aircraft. It shoots a howitzer. So it shoots a shell the size of a log in a fireplace, along with the other guns. So it basically just destroyed this hospital, killing 42 people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there going to be an independent investigation?

BOWMAN: No, the Pentagon says there will be no independent investigation. They said they never do anything like that. But again, Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, they are calling for an independent investigation. And some are, again, calling for a criminal investigation into what happened here.

INSKEEP: Whether that happens or not, let me ask about how the Pentagon operates now, how an AC-130 gunship would be operating today over Afghanistan. And surely there might well be one. What's the Pentagon doing differently?

BOWMAN: Well, what they're saying is you have to follow correct procedures. You have to have a, you know, positive ID on a target, you have to communicate, you have to make sure you're seeing an actual target, check and double check here. But I've got to tell you, as U.S. withdraws forces in Afghanistan and the Afghan forces are calling for more airstrikes during this fighting season, you could see mistakes like this happening again and again if - you know, again, if they're calling for airstrikes and people make mistakes.

INSKEEP: When you talk to military people, do they on some level just say look, this is war; it's going to happen?

BOWMAN: They do. They talk about the fog of war. But in this case, again, there are a lot of questions that we need answers to. And hopefully today, Gen. Joe Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, is going to the Pentagon for a briefing. They will ask him all these questions.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reporting on this day when we're expecting to hear that 16 members of the military have been disciplined for an incident in which a hospital was fired upon in Kunduz, Afghanistan. But there are, at this point, no criminal charges. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information