MSF hospital attack: US relied on Afghan allies who resented hospital, says AP


Immediately after the US killed at least 30 people in a devastating airstrike on a charity hospital, Afghanistan’s national security adviser told a European diplomat that his country would take responsibility because “we are without doubt, 100 per cent 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 Afghan position. Eyewitnesses tell the AP they saw no gunman at the hospital.

Instead, there are mounting indications the US military relied heavily on its Afghan allies who resented the internationally run 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 US 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.

Looking ahead, the strike raises questions about whether the US military should rely on intelligence from Afghan allies in a war in which small contingent of Americans will increasingly fight with larger units of local forces.

Also at issue is how American commanders, with sophisticated information technology at their disposal, could have 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 US 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 air strike.

“On the day of the attack I was in the hospital from 9am until 5am. 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 apologised for the attack on the Doctors Without Borders hospital. 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, which also are conducting their own investigations. The US has declined to endorse Doctors without Borders’ call for an independent investigation.

“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 scrutinise all of the facts to learn from them so that it never happens again.”

The hour-long 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 US intelligence official said.

From their position in the governor’s compound, they came under heavy assault by waves of Taliban fighters, and sought to use air power to destroy the Taliban’s remaining command and control nodes around the city.

The Afghans insisted that the hospital was one of those command centres, and urged it to 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, who had raided the hospital in July, seeking an Al Qaeda member they believed was being treated there, despite protests from Doctors Without Borders.

After the American air attack, the Afghan soldiers rushed in, looking for Taliban fighters, Doctors without Borders said.