Key questions unasked in the news about the US attack on Kunduz Hospital

Summary: The attack on the Kunduz Hospital occurs at a potentially pivotal time in the Afghanistan civil war, as the Taliban gains ground against the puppet government installed by the US government. Here aviation journalist David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired) gives us a brief on the issues, and about the questions that get lost amidst the conflicting stories.

Victor J. Blue for NBC News
In Kunduz Hospital after the attack. By Victor J. Blue for NBC News

Even If It Were a Taliban Hospital: Still a No-No
By David Evans

There’s nothing like some misdirected shellfire to explode hubris. A month ago on the PBS NewsHour senior defense officials proclaimed the U.S. military is getting “pretty good” at low intensity combat. On 3 October, an Air Force AC-130U gunship pummeled a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Aghanistan. Twenty-two patients and doctors were killed, 37 were wounded and 33 are missing, so the death count may rise.

This toll is on top of more than 1,000 innocent civilians killed in Afghanistan over the past year from U.S. airstrikes that have strafed or bombed wedding parties, funerals, other gatherings and whatnot.

When the job is to win the “hearts and minds” of the local population in an anti-guerrilla campaign, the use of poorly-coordinated air power is counterproductive. Civilian informants dry up, the overall population grows more suspicious of the foreigners’ agenda, and the enemy’s propaganda is strengthened.

The AC-130U gunship is armed with a 25mm rapid firing rotary cannon, a larger 40mm automatic cannon and a 105mm howitzer. The howitzer can fire up to ten rounds a minute. The 40mm cannon fires up to ten times faster, and the 25mm cannon can spew out 1,800 rounds a minute. Clearly, any target will be pummeled, shredded and pulverized.

All the more reason to exercise extreme caution before unleashing the storm of ordnance.

Doctors Without Borders claims it notified the U.S. military of its hospital in Kunduz. It’s not clear just who they notified.

All close air support strikes are supposed to be cleared through a Fire Support Coordination Center (FSCC). At this center, no-fire zones should be clearly marked on maps or computers. When a request for air support is radioed in from a unit in contact, if the request for fire support overlays a no-fire area, permission to conduct the air strike slows up or evaporates.

So exactly what the FSCC knew about the hospital’s location is key. If the FSCC watch standers were unaware of the hospital, why didn’t they know?

In Vietnam, air strikes were coordinated by a Forward Air Controller (FAA) on the ground, normally this individual is found right beside the friendly ground commander. Alternatively, an airborne FAC — usually in a light airplane and in radio contact with the ground unit, the FSCC and the airplanes called in for the strike — manages the issues of proper target identification and the air strikes to neutralize same. Whether on the ground or in the air, the FAC observes the target continually and radios corrections to the strike aircraft if the strafing or the bombs miss the target (“On the next pass, come left 200m”).

The airstrike on the hospital was apparently done without benefit of either a ground or airborne FAC. The need for an airborne FAC to first fly over the target, at a low altitude (not more than 1,000 ft), is obvious.

Doctors Without Borders allegedly claims a large red cross was splayed across the hospital roof. However, at night, when the strike was executed, it is doubtful that an AC-130U gunship orbiting 5,000-10,000 feet overhead would have seen it, even assuming that the aircrew was equipped with night vision goggles.

Questions abound, like these tactical issues…

  1. Has it become routine to conduct close air support missions without an on-scene FAC?
  2. Exactly who in the FSCC authorized the airstrike?
  3. Was the location of the hospital not known in the FSCC? If not, why not?
  4. Why did the AC-130U gunship make repeated attacks on the hospital over a period of more than an hour?
  5. What assessment of the target was made after the initial firing pass?

There are larger questions…

  1. Has anyone in the chain of command been relieved pending the completion of an investigation (the AC-130U aircraft commander, the AC-130U squadron commander, the senior watch officer in the FSCC)?
  2. What other no-fire areas are unknown to the FSCC?
  3. Is close air support at night even necessary when the friendly ground unit is in no danger of being overrun?
  4. What does this say about friendly forces’ tactical awareness of potentially sensitive no-fire targets throughout Afghanistan? About their awareness of Taliban whereabouts in general?
  5. Is the altitude at which the AC-130U began firing driven more by the need to avoid damage to the airplane than the need for unequivocal target identification?

Can the Dept. of Defense really be trusted to thoroughly and impartially investigate this incident? Other departmental investigations of military mistakes (e.g., the Navy cruiser Vincennes downing of an Iranian airliner) have been self-serving, superficial and evasive regarding accountability.

The ratio of innocents killed by airstrikes and the number of confirmed insurgent kills suggests that recruits for the insurgency are being made faster than guerrillas are being killed off.

Bottom line:  The U.S. military is hardly “pretty good” at low intensity conflict.

David Evans

About the author

David Evans retired as a Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel. He was a nationally syndicated military affairs correspondent for the Chicago Tribune from 1987 to 1993, widely read for his detailed and hard-hitting coverage. From 1995 – 2011 he was the editor-in-chief of Air Safety Week, a newsletter covering air safety and security issues.

An example of his work: “Vow to ‘Support Ground Troops’ Rings Hollow“, 10 May 2012.  With more journalists like him the prospects for military reform would burn brighter.

For More Information

The Guardian: “Doctors Without Borders airstrike: US alters story for fourth time in four days. Commander of war in Afghanistan tells Senate panel that US forces had called in airstrike at Afghan request.”  “US Commander admits errors in Afghan hospital attack.”

These attacks on civilians have been an ongoing part of our war in Afghanistan, as in these incidents from the early days.

Statements about this incident by Doctors Without Borders

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See these posts for a better understanding of these incidents…