General John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, admitted that the airstrike targeting a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan this weekend was a mistake authorized “within the U.S. chain of command.”
“A hospital was mistakenly struck,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.”
Campbell said that Afghan forces had requested the strike in the northern city of Kunduz, reporting that they were under fire from the Taliban, which took over the city for the first time since 2001 last week. A counteroffensive from Afghani forces this weekend shrank some of the Taliban’s gains, but troops are still struggling to maintain a hold on the city.
He added that U.S Special Operations Forces “were in close vicinity” to the hospital at the time of the attack and were in communication with the aircraft that attacked the building.
At least 22 Afghanis were killed in the strike — 12 medical workers and at least ten patients. Doctors Without Borders called the strike a “war crime” and is now withdrawing from the region. “The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff,” Doctors Without Borders director Christopher Stokes said in a statement. “The U.S. military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack.”
The Pentagon is investigating the airstrike and reaching out to medical personnel who survived the strike for more information. “I am sure that the investigations will be thorough, objective, and transparent,” Campbell said.
On Monday, after a weekend without many answers — or at least with conflicting ones — Campbell said that "Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. forces. An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat, and several civilians were accidentally struck.”
The top general was scheduled to answer the Senate committee’s questions about accusations of sexual abuse in Afghanistan on Tuesday, although much of that time was reallocated to discussing the airstrike, at least at the beginning of the hearing. Campbell was also asked about the plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2016 — 15 years after the war started and before Obama leaves office. The general said that plan may need to be reconsidered, and that “strategic patience” is necessary — meaning that military officials might want troops to stay in Afghanistan through the beginning of another presidency. “Based on conditions on the ground I do believe we have to provide senior leaders with options different than the current plan we are going with,” Campbell said on Tuesday.
NATO allies are meeting on Thursday in Brussels, and the future of the coalition in Afghanistan will surely be one of the big topics discussed — and heavily debated.