Did US ex­ceed au­thor­ity with strike?


The deadly U.S. at­tack on a hos­pi­tal in Afghanistan, which U.S. of­fi­cials have called a “mis­take,” leaves open the pos­si­bil­ity that the de­ci­sion to open fire ex­ceeded the au­thor­ity un­der which Amer­i­can forces have op­er­ated since their com­bat mis­sion ended nearly a year ago, of­fi­cials say.

U.S. of­fi­cials have de­clined to dis­cuss most cir­cum­stances of the at­tack in Kun­duz that killed 22 civil­ians, since Amer­i­can and Afghan in­ves­ti­ga­tions are un­der way.

Gen. John F. Camp­bell, the top U.S. com­man­der in Afghanistan, told a Se­nate com­mit­tee on Tues­day that he is re­quir­ing that ev­ery U.S. ser­vice mem­ber in Afghanistan be re­trained on the cir­cum­stances in which U.S. fire­power can be used.

“To pre­vent any fu­ture in­ci­dences of this na­ture, I’ve di­rected the en­tire force to un­dergo in-depth train­ing in or­der to re­view all of our op­er­a­tional author­i­ties and rules of en­gage­ment,” he said.

Camp­bell did not elab­o­rate, but his state­ment pointed to the pos­si­bil­ity that the U.S. at­tack mis­sion was un­der­taken in er­ror, even if the tar­get had not been a hos­pi­tal and there had been no civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

Camp­bell said Afghan forces fight­ing to re­take Kun­duz from the Tal­iban had re­quested U.S. air power, and that a U.S. spe­cial oper­a­tions unit in the “close vicin­ity” was com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the crew of the heav­ily armed AC-130 gun­ship that pum­meled the hos­pi­tal.

U.S. forces do not have blan­ket au­thor­ity to ful­fill ev­ery Afghan re­quest for U.S. fire­power.

When Pres­i­dent Barack Obama ended the U.S. com­bat mis­sion he di­rected the re­main­ing U.S. forces to fo­cus on train­ing and ad­vis­ing Afghan se­cu­rity forces and on coun­tert­er­ror­ism mis­sions. Au­thor­ity to use force was lim­ited to three cir­cum­stances: “force pro­tec­tion,” or the de­fense of U.S. and al­lied troops; sup­port of mis­sions tar­get­ing rem­nants of al-Qaida in Afghanistan; and as­sist­ing Afghan forces in ex­treme sit­u­a­tions where they faced mass ca­su­al­ties.

It’s not clear whether any of those three cir­cum­stances ap­plied in Kun­duz. Camp­bell has said that U.S. forces were not di­rectly threat­ened at the time, and there is no in­di­ca­tion that al-Qaida was present.

‘Fi­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity lay

with U.S. forces’

In a re­port to Congress in June, the U.S. De­fense Depart­ment said U.S. forces were no longer au­tho­rized to tar­get in­di­vid­u­als based on af­fil­i­a­tion with the Tal­iban or any group other than al-Qaida. It said U.S. forces are per­mit­ted to take ac­tion against in­di­vid­u­als that “pose a di­rect threat” to U.S. and coali­tion forces. “For ex­am­ple, U.S. forces no longer tar­get in­di­vid­u­als solely on the ba­sis of their mem­ber­ship in the Tal­iban; how­ever, if a mem­ber of the Tal­iban threat­ens U.S. or coali­tion forces, or pro­vides di­rect sup­port to al-Qaida, U.S. forces may take ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion,” the re­port said.

Camp­bell told the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee that although Afghan forces re­quested U.S. air power, fi­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity lay with U.S. forces.

“To be clear, the de­ci­sion to pro­vide (airstrikes) was a U.S. de­ci­sion, made within the U.S. chain of com­mand,” Camp­bell said. “The hos­pi­tal was mis­tak­enly struck. We would never in­ten­tion­ally tar­get a pro­tected med­i­cal fa­cil­ity.”

U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter, who was trav­el­ing in Europe on Tues­day, is­sued a state­ment promis­ing a full and trans­par­ent in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “We will do ev­ery­thing we can to un­der­stand this tragic in­ci­dent, learn from it and hold peo­ple ac­count­able as nec­es­sary,” he said.

Some in­ter­na­tional groups, in­clud­ing Hu­man Rights Watch, are call­ing for an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“The U.S. should es­tab­lish an in­de­pen­dent panel out­side the mil­i­tary chain of com­mand with the aim of es­tab­lish­ing the facts and as­sess­ing pos­si­ble cul­pa­bil­ity for the strike that killed at least 22 med­i­cal staff and pa­tients and wounded dozens more,” the group said.

In his tes­ti­mony, Camp­bell also rec­om­mended Obama re­vise his plan and keep more than 1,000 U.S. troops in the coun­try be­yond 2016.

Camp­bell said se­cu­rity and po­lit­i­cal con­di­tions in Afghanistan have changed since Obama an­nounced his plan in 2014 to cut the cur­rent U.S. force of 9,800 to an em­bassy­based se­cu­rity con­tin­gent of about 1,000 in Kabul post-2016. Obama has vowed to a war-weary na­tion to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan and get Amer­i­can troops out by the time he leaves of­fice in Jan­uary 2017.

Camp­bell said, how­ever, that Afghanistan re­mains en­gaged in a vi­o­lent bat­tle against the Tal­iban, mil­i­tary oper­a­tions in Pak­istan have pushed fight­ers, in­clud­ing those linked to al-Qaida, into eastern and north­ern Afghanistan and the emer­gence of Is­lamic State fight­ers has fur­ther com­pli­cated the con­flict.

Re­duc­ing the U.S. pres­ence to just a 1,000-per­son con­tin­gent based at the U.S. Em­bassy in Kabul would leave the United States with lim­ited abil­ity to train and as­sist the Afghan forces and even less ca­pac­ity to con­duct coun­tert­er­ror­ism oper­a­tions. He said the op­tions he has pro­vided to his su­pe­ri­ors are for troop lev­els be­yond 1,000, but he de­clined to re­veal how many troops he be­lieves may be needed or for how long.

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