Analysts Knew Site Destroyed In Airstrike Was Hospital

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Above Photo:  Injured members of the Doctors Without Borders staff find shelter in a safe room after their hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, was bombed earlier this month. (AP)

The Associated Press has reported that days before an Afghan hospital run by Doctors Without Borders was destroyed in a U.S. military attack, American special operations analysts were gathering intelligence on the facility because they believed it was being used by a Pakistani operative to coordinate Taliban activity.

And Thursday, The Guardian reported that a U.S. tank “forced its way into the shell of the Afghanistan hospital destroyed in an airstrike 11 days ago, prompting warnings that the US military may have destroyed evidence in a potential war crimes investigation.”

From the Associated Press story:

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 who is familiar with some of the documents describing the site. 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 former intelligence official was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

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.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said questions about what the Defense Department knew about the clinic and whether it was communicated to personnel operating the gunship would be part of the Pentagon’s investigation. He said President Barack Obama was expecting a “full accounting.”

“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, and that death toll may rise. 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 said.

To read the full report, click here.

Whether or not the U.S. airstrike that killed 22 people at a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) near Kunduz, Afghanistan, on Oct. 3 was a violation of international humanitarian law depends in large part on whether the military knewthe site was a hospital, and if not, whether military officials took adequate steps to figure out what they were bombing. The latest reporting on the incident is not encouraging.

On NBC Nightly News on Thursday, Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski reported that, based on the accounts of Defense Department sources, cockpit recordings from the AC-130 gunship involved in the incident “reveal that the crew actually questioned whether the airstrike was legal.” He also quoted a U.S. defense official suggesting that the attack “may in fact amount to a war crime.” The video and audio cockpit recordings of the incident, which feature conversations between the plane’s crew and U.S. troops on the ground, are at the center of the military’s investigation into the incident, as theDaily Beast’s Nancy Youssef reported last week.* The recordings have not been released publicly or even to the members of Congress who received a classified briefing on the incident.

The AP also reported on Thursday that, before the bombing, U.S. special operations analysts had been gathering information on the hospital compound because they believed it was being used by a Pakistani operative to coordinate Taliban activity during the battle for Kunduz. It’s not clear whether the crew on the plane or the commanders who ordered the attack were aware that this intelligence was being gathered, but it is further evidence that the site was known to U.S. forces as a hospital. MSF also says it called the Pentagon while the attack was taking place. The defense official quoted in the NBC report acknowledged that the call took place, but the information was evidently not passed along to Afghanistan.

While MSF acknowledges that it treated unarmed Taliban fighters at the hospital, it denies that the facility was being used by any armed group. There’s no evidence so far to suggest that any of those killed in the bombing were Pakistani. And even if the operatives were there, it would hardly justify complete destruction of a known hospital filled with civilians.

The U.S. explanation for how the incident took place has shifted several times and the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, reportedly believes that U.S. troops did not follow proper procedure. MSF, which has alleged that a war crime took place, is calling on the U.S. and Afghan governments to consent to an independent investigation, a request that has so far been rebuffed.

MSF has also charged that a U.S. tank that forced its way into the hospital compound on Thursday carrying a “U.S./NATO/Afghan investigation team,” damaged property at the site including potential evidence. A U.S. coalition spokesman told NBC, “We are aware of the incident and are looking into what happened.” One more for the growing list of questions.