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Top U.S. Commander In Afghanistan Calls Hospital Bombing 'A Tragic Mistake'


Today we have new information about the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last month. The attack by an American aircraft lasted nearly half an hour, leaving 30 staff and patients dead and another 36 injured. Now the Pentagon says it was caused by human error. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, spoke to reporters by teleconference today.

GENERAL JOHN CAMPBELL: The medical facility was misidentified as a target by U.S. personnel who believed they were striking a different building several hundred meters away where there were reports of combatants.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reported on the attack when it first happened and joins us now to explain how this tragedy occurred. Hi, Tom.


SHAPIRO: With all of the sophisticated communication, surveillance and aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, how could human error take place in a situation like this?

BOWMAN: Well, it was human error and also technical errors. Ari, the pilot of this AC-130 gunship was given the description and the correct coordinates of the building to hit. It was an Afghan intelligence building taken over by the Taliban. But soon after that, the pilot thought he was under fire from a missile, so he went to a higher orbit. And that kind of messed up his targeting systems. And when they plugged in those correct coordinates they were given, it showed the location as being an empty field 300 yards or more from the intended target.

SHAPIRO: OK, so they've got this empty field as the location. And then what happened?

BOWMAN: So now they said, well, we have a physical description of this target. We'll just look for the closest large building that matches the description. And they spotted one. It was the hospital, right? And even when they came back to a lower orbit and the targeting system corrected itself and then showed the coordinates on the right target, that intelligence building, there was still time to avoid a tragedy, right? But some of the crew either ignored this or overruled this new information. They were still fixated, officials said, on this field and that large building they saw, so they opened fire with no idea that it was a hospital, according to the report.

SHAPIRO: The attack lasted half an hour. And the group Doctors Without Borders - Medecins Sans Frontieres - say they called U.S.-led forces in the middle of the attack. Was that confirmed in the investigation?

BOWMAN: It was. And what's troubling is Doctors Without Borders called Bagram Air Base and said, we're being fired upon. It took another 17 minutes - all the while, the attack was still going on - before commanders there realized there was a mistake. By then, the attack was over - 30 dead, 36 injured.

And also, Ari, Doctors Without Borders gave their exact location to the American command three days earlier, and it was widely distributed throughout the command. This is according to the report, but officials said that information never got to the attacking aircraft.

SHAPIRO: How has Doctors Without Borders responded to the report today?

BOWMAN: Well, they called it gross negligence. They said it raises more questions than answers. And they called, once again, for an independent investigation, but no word on that yet from any international group. And we're also told that a dozen or more U.S. military officials have either been removed from their jobs or face disciplinary action as a result of that deadly attack in Kunduz.

SHAPIRO: Briefly - does this close the chapter, then or more to come?

BOWMAN: Well, we'll see what happens if there's an independent investigation, but most people say that's unlikely to happen.

SHAPIRO: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman - thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.