Probe reveals new details about the US attack on an MSF hospital in Afghanistan

The World
Hospital beds lay in the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan on April 26, 2016, about six months after an American airstrike killed dozens of patients, some of whom burned to death in their beds.

Hospital beds lay in the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan on April 26, 2016, about six months after an American airstrike killed dozens of patients, some of whom burned to death in their beds.

Josh Smith

In the morning hours of Oct. 3, most staff and patients at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan were sound asleep.

Then came the explosions. And the fire. There was chaos and confusion as doctors and patients tried to flee to safety.

Forty-two people were killed in the attack and many more were wounded.

But it wasn't the Taliban or another extremist group behind the assault. It was a US Air Force AC-130U gunship. US Special Forces had ordered the strike, believing that the hospital was a Taliban compound.

The US military conducted an investigation and released its findings on April 29. It concluded that the attack was a result of equipment failure and human error. Sixteen US military personnel were disciplined.

Now, Matthieu Aikins, a fellow at the Nation Institute who focuses on the Middle East, has published a new investigation into what happened that night.

According to Aikins, one crucial point has so far been downplayed in accounts of the attack: the role of the Afghan army.

The initial plan was for the Americans to carry out an air attack in support of Afghan forces and US Special Forces on the ground. It was supposed to target a compound that was a quarter-mile away. But when the plane got to the area, things took a different turn.

"They couldn't see the target," explains Aikins, "the AC130, its systems weren't working properly so it couldn't exactly use the grid coordinates that that were given, [...] so they relied on the description that had been given to them by the Afghan commandos."

That information directed the AC130 toward the hospital, not the Taliban compound.

Aikins notes that there's long been tension between Afghan forces and Doctors Without Borders. The medical charity, which also goes by its French initials MSF, has a policy of helping whoever needs medical assistance. In Kunduz, that included Taliban fighters. For some Afghans, especially soldiers fighting against the Taliban, that was hard to accept. 

"Did Afghan forces, influenced by their longstanding animosity for MSF, believe that it had become a Taliban headquarters and needed to be taken out?" Aikins wrote. "Unless their findings have been redacted, the military’s investigators seemed not to have probed these questions."

Today, Aikins says, Kunduz is still without a hospital and residents have to travel to Kabul for any medical assistance.

The painful memories of that tragic night still reverberate through the city. Those who survived told Aikins they are struggling to come to terms with what happened.

"[They say] it's horrifying how this place that was so important to the people of Kunduz and provided them with free medical care [...] could be destroyed in the space of less than an hour," he says.