WASHINGTON — With the United States struggling to account for an airstrike that decimated a Doctors Without Borders hospital, the American commander in Afghanistan on Tuesday took responsibility for the sustained bombardment of the medical facility, which he said took place in response to an Afghan call for help.
The commander, Gen. John F. Campbell, said the strike was the result of “a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command.”
General Campbell, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, offered few new details about the attack, which lasted for more than a half-hour and killed 22 patients and hospital staff members in northern Afghanistan on Saturday. He said the details of what took place would come out in an investigation now underway.
But after days of shifting and at times ambiguous American statements about the strike, which Doctors Without Borders has compared to a war crime, General Campbell was as direct on Tuesday as any official has been to date.
“A hospital was mistakenly struck,” he said.
The general said the military had received a request for air support from Afghan troops fighting to retake Kunduz from the Taliban. “Even though the Afghans request that support,” he said, “it still has to go through a rigorous U.S. procedure.”
Yet General Campbell offered little clarity about how that procedure failed or the events that led up to the strike.
The incident in Kunduz, as well as the faltering attempt by Afghan forces to recapture the city, has renewed questions about the shape and scope of the American mission in Afghanistan. Most of the roughly 10,000 troops American troops now there are focused on training and advising Afghan troops, and the White House placed broad limits on when and where the Americans could use force after the American combat mission ended last year.
At the same time, it has given General Campbell a wide amount of discretion to do what he deems necessary to aid Afghan troops. For the most part, that has meant using air power.
But the fighting in Kunduz over the past 10 days has illustrated the limits of air power, and offered a tragic reminder of the danger airstrikes pose to civilians, who have been repeatedly killed by American aerial bombardment since the outset of the war 14 years ago.
American officials have said they were reluctant to use air power to stop the Taliban from seizing Kunduz on Sept. 28 because they feared the possibility of killing civilians. But with forces struggling to retake the city, American troops responded to a call for help on Saturday by dispatching an AC-130 gunship, a powerful and precise attack aircraft.
General Campbell said on Tuesday that the gunship had been in communication with American advisers on the ground in Kunduz. But he did not say whether anyone involved in the strike realized they were targeting a hospital, or if the Americans could even see the intended target or were relying on Afghan forces to identify the building they wanted hit.
“There were not American forward air controllers on the ground?” Senator Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee asked.
“Sir, we had a special operations unit that was in close vicinity that was talking to the aircraft that delivered those fires,” General Campbell replied without elaborating.
Before the general’s testimony, Doctors Without Borders put out a statement reiterating its allegations that the destruction of the hospital amounted to a war crime, and repeating its call for an independent investigation.
“This attack cannot be brushed aside as a mere mistake or an inevitable consequence of war,” Dr. Joanne Liu, the president of Doctors Without Borders International, said in the statement.
The bulk of the questions directed at General Campbell on Tuesday centered on plans to continue the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in the coming year.
The Taliban’s recent gains appear to have restarted a debate a within the Obama administration about whether to move forward with plans to cut by about half the current American force of about 10,000 troops. The Pentagon, along with some senior officials within the administration, is pushing to maintain a large force in Afghanistan for as long as possible, arguing that the Afghan army and police are still in need of American assistance.
General Campbell said he believed the situation in Afghanistan necessitated a change in plans. “ I do believe we have to provide our senior leadership with options different from the current plan,” he said in a response to a question about whether the drawdown should proceed as planned.
“As I take a look at conditions on the ground,” he continued, “when the president made that decision it did not take into account the changes over the past two years.”