Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Collateral Damage

Back in October our barkeep P.F. Khans asked: "...Who is Responsible for the Hospital Bombing?" about the then-current speculation over the U.S. armed forces actions during a bombardment of a Doctors Without Borders (Medicins san Frontiers, or MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

One of the persistent questions was how could the U.S. and U.S.-advised Afghan forces have targeted what was a very distinctive hospital compound, one that should have been recognizable even from the air as a no-fire zone.

The U.S. higher responsible for the area of operations, Central Command (CENTCOM) released its report in April, and it contains some information on how this could have happened. From the blog Lawfare:
"Two mishaps that were clearly not criminal in nature occurred early on in the night mission, and those mistakes paved the way for the tragedy to follow in Kunduz. First, the attacking aircraft—an AC-130U with extensive firepower on board—took off early because of a report of U.S. troops being attacked. Due to the haste of the aircraft’s departure, there was no time to upload the “No-Strike List” (NSL) to the aircraft’s computers.
This question came up repeatedly in the original discussion. In his post, PF said:
"There's a Fire Direction Chief (sorry FDChief) that's got an AFATDS computer which should have had all hospitals/other sensitive areas restricted, so that you are warned if you are shooting there. Someone has to manually enter that data, was that data input into the system? Was the hospital in this AFATDS computer?

I don't see a reason that it wouldn't/shouldn't have been. I get that an AC-130 gunship may have to cover a lot of territory, but it's the 14th year of the war. Someone has managed this data. Someone spent a boring deployment porting this data to all the systems. This should have been done by now, that hospital didn't spring up when the Taliban attacked.

So if that wasn't there, the FDC is in trouble.
If it was there and the FDC overruled it without higher approval, the FDC is in trouble."
In the comments section I noted that the USAF didn't use the U.S. Army FA fire direction system, but that while
"...(a)ir fires are neither controlled nor coordinated thru the FA direct support elements. That includes the firing battery and battalion FDCs as well as both the FO elements attached to the maneuver platoons and the FSEs at the maneuver company and battalion HQs. The FSEs may liase w USAF control teams to clear potential CAS target areas of friendly forces but have no role in CAS missions beyond that. So the responsibility for CAS mission direction would be on the USAF FACP (forward air control party - at least that was the term when I was still in ten years ago...). The FAC should have, as has been noted above, been advised of NFAs ("no fire areas") as well as RFZs ("restricted fire zones") established by the maneuver commander."
Well, it turns out that the control party - which consisted of U.S. Army Special Forces troops - had more problems than just missing overlays. The Lawfare article goes on to report:
"Second, well before the attack on the MSF facility began, the U.S. aircraft’s satellite radio—its data link—failed. While the aircraft still had radio contact with ground forces, it could not send or receive emails or upload data, such as the NSL. Special Operations forces on the ground wanted to target a prison overrun by the Taliban, formerly run by the Afghan government’s National Directorate of Security (NDS). However, because of the lack of a data upload capacity and imprecise descriptions at both ends of communications, the aircraft crew mistook the MSF facility for the former NDS prison."
To make matters worse, the commander of the maneuver forces was working with a combat controller - or, more specifically, a "joint terminal attack controller" or JTAC (since a combat controller is a USAF-specific occupational specialty and the JTAC may be from any service branch...). The report says that the aggressive maneuver commander and the cherry JTAC turned out to be a combination lethal for the patients and staff of the MSF hospital:
"...ground forces informed the crew that the intended target had an “arch-shaped gate.” While this description matched many buildings in the area, the crew took it as a match for the MSF facility. The ground force commander (GFC) did not seek clarification, and had no independent visual ability to confirm the crew’s judgment. In other words, the GFC and the aircraft crew were actually labeling entirely different structures as being one and the same. (T)he (air)crew repeatedly asked the GFC to confirm that the intended target was a “large t-shape building.” The GFC (or his inexperienced subordinate, the...JTAC...confirmed this description, which matched many buildings in the vicinity. Unfortunately, the crew and the GFC were still unknowingly talking about two different buildings: the crew “had eyes” on the MSF facility, which was marked with MSF emblems but not the more familiar red cross or red crescent symbols used globally to label medical sites, while the GFC believed that the crew was describing the intended target: the NDS prison held by the Taliban. The JTAC did not help matters with instructions such as “soften the target,” which did not correspond to the situation the crew was viewing in real time."
And the maneuver commander seems to have been a real wild man:
"This communications failure was compounded by the inappropriately aggressive posture of the GFC, whom the military report described as having “willfully violated” the ROE. The US ROE restricted the use of air power, except in response to a hostile act by the Taliban directed at U.S. forces. However, the GFC ordered the attack on the MSF facility although the GFC “could not have reasonably believed” that the attack was justified by an ongoing hostile act. While the GFC asserted to military investigators that he saw what he believed to be an attack on a friendly military convoy, the Centcom report viewed that assertion as inconsistent with other sources, including aircraft video, radio transcripts, and tracking data. Moreover, the military’s report indicated that the GFC, because of distance from the convoy, could not have had the line of sight that he claimed. In sum, even an attack on the “right” target—the NDS facility—would not have been a response to hostile fires, as the ROE required. Because of the GFC’s aggressive posture and the mutual misidentification of the MSF facility as the “right” NDS target, the attack commenced."
Once the bombardment started the commo problems interfered again;
"Shortly after the attack started, MSF representatives contacted U.S. commands, imploring them to stop the fires. However, the communications failure and the ground-air misunderstandings severely impeded a timely U.S. response. About 12 minutes into the attack, personnel at the U.S. Special Operations Task Force inquired about the coordinates of the target being engaged. Two minutes later, U.S. personnel contacted the crew and sought to confirm that the attack had not harmed the MSF facility. The crew stated that the MSF facility hadn’t been touched, reporting that the only structures affected were the “T-shaped building” or adjacent structures, which the GFC had earlier mistakenly identified as the NDS prison, although in reality the crew was still describing the MSF hospital. It took several more minutes to ascertain that the building being attacked was in fact the MSF facility. Once that awful realization took hold, the attack ceased."

The military’s report details the errors that dogged each step in this appalling episode. Not unlike the critical moments of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, missteps and misunderstandings at several junctures paved the way for an unspeakable tragedy.
In other words; war.

The usual suspects are saying the usual things. "Conservatives" are draping themselves in yellow ribbons, "liberals" in loathing of the licentious soldiery and distrust of the "official story". Regardless of opinion, the business is done, now, except for in the grave, or the twisted bodies of the injured, or the anger of the survivors and families.

My original point in the comments stands; that regardless of whether this was a deliberate attack or a mistake, the failure of the U.S. command authority in Afghanistan to quickly and publicly discipline the individuals involved sent a clear message that Afghan lives didn't matter, not as much as American servicepeople's lives, or even of their careers.

When suppressing rebellions there is a tried and true method. Unfortunately, it is also unspeakably savage, the Roman Way - make a silence and call it peace.

The West wants and hopes that hearts and minds can be won, that the "Afridis where they run" can be wooed rather than butchered, that there is a kinder, gentler way to suppress revolts. Unfortunately, to do that the suppressor's troops have to be held to a standard that admits no such lethal errors as these, and that every drop of blood spilled with the sword is payed for with a drop of blood drawn by the lash.

We choose not to lash ourselves, and therefore should not be surprised that our means and methods are not embraced by those we slash.


  1. Many things go wrong in war, but how stupid is it to not mark a hospital in a warzone with red cross or red crescent on all sides, preferably visible even on thermals?

  2. I wondered about that too. Maybe just stupid/careless assumptions that the occupation higher would know? That seems ridiculously blithe re: Murphy's Laws of War.

    Frankly, nobody involved in this fiasco comes out looking good. But if that's not "The History of the Umpteenth Afghan War" I can't think of what is. All the way back to 1844, I swear...

  3. Chief,

    Good summary, but I think that the description of the GFC is just straight bullshit.

    Let's break this down:

    "This communications failure was compounded by the inappropriately aggressive posture of the GFC, whom the military report described as having “willfully violated” the ROE."

    GFC was aware of the rules of engagement, he knew how he should have comported himself and what was and was not permitted and he didn't give a shit.

    "The US ROE restricted the use of air power, except in response to a hostile act by the Taliban directed at U.S. forces. However, the GFC ordered the attack on the MSF facility although the GFC “could not have reasonably believed” that the attack was justified by an ongoing hostile act."

    PID - Positive Identification. This guy didn't have it. No one is supposed to shoot anything without it. And if in the aftermath the investigator couldn't even 'reasonably believe' that he had it, then this is just madness. He was way out of bounds requesting this attack.

    "While the GFC asserted to military investigators that he saw what he believed to be an attack on a friendly military convoy, the Centcom report viewed that assertion as inconsistent with other sources, including aircraft video, radio transcripts, and tracking data. Moreover, the military’s report indicated that the GFC, because of distance from the convoy, could not have had the line of sight that he claimed."

    GFC lied. To CENTCOM. To the Army. To America. He broke the bank and lied through his teeth. Kick that man out of the service, minimum.

    "In sum, even an attack on the “right” target—the NDS facility—would not have been a response to hostile fires, as the ROE required. Because of the GFC’s aggressive posture and the mutual misidentification of the MSF facility as the “right” NDS target, the attack commenced."
    GFC was John Wayne and it got a lot of people killed. Sure, he didn't get the support that would have been ideal. FDC should have had the right resources. His JTAC was not qualified for this task. But dammit, the commander gets the burden of this assignment and it's on him. He made the call and it was a very bad call and then he lied about it.

    This guy is bad for the war AND the service.

    PF Khans

    1. My understanding is that the maneuver element commander got a kiss-of-death letter from the CENTCOM four-star (along w a bunch of the other officers involved in this). So his career is over. But I agree that that lacks the visceral satisfaction of a "Branded"-style ripping-off-rank-insignia-and-snapping-his-saber kind of defenestration...

    2. Chief,

      A 'kiss-of-death' is so completely insufficient to the task. I don't know how the Vietnam-era Army functioned or the early all volunteer Army functioned, but I can tell you that every officer and senior NCO that I met in the Army could tell you about the time that 'we killed civilians.' All of them can tell that story because war is hell and it's very hard/impossible to avoid this always.

      This, though, is not one of those stories! This is worse on several levels.

      Level 1 - This event is demoralizing. It sucks to be a part of something like this because war is shitty. It's made more shitty because the reason this happened is known and could have been avoided if the rules and process had been followed. If it were a private that had failed to follow the rules, he's out. If it was a SSG or a 2LT, he's out. Failing sucks and there are consequences to it.

      Level 2 - The consequences for failure do not fall adequately on the guilty. There is a party that is known to have failed. I really can't imagine these findings coming out against a leader who was good at his job. This joker was not good at his job. He freaked out and was bad at his job. It could have been that this is a cost of continued stress, and not a good reflection of the character of this leader, but then fire him. He's not good at this job given the potential contexts of the job. He showed he can't do it. Everyone involved watched him melt down and fail. He should bare the consequences of that and at the very least be told, 'there's the door.' It sucks, but this is a disaster and if we want to avoid disasters in the future, you have to have some way to kick out people like this.
      I saw the Army work tooth and nail to keep failures and drunks in and kick out high quality officers and NCOs. This is one of those cases. Everyone involved here took lessons away from this that show that who you know matters more than what you do.

      Level 3 - lying about this to make the official story look better is acceptable. Fuck reality. Let's all live in lala land. It reminds me of a XO that came up with a vehicle functionality level of 'not NMC' because fuck it. If your vehicle had no motor but had functioning weaponry, 'not NMC.' No gun mounts but working engine 'not NMC.' Because the numbers had to be good and no one could hear that the machines weren't working as was required, so just lie about it. This shit flows through a system and damages it. Everyone involved adopts a different stance towards reality, one that helps the boss make a presentation instead of one that gets things done. It inevitably leads to another screw up and opens the door to very big and actually damaging surprises.

      There are high quality, good morals, exactly-the-kind-of-guy-we-need type leaders that will be exiting the Army after this. They could have been kept in if we had addressed this in a moral and humble way instead of this bullshit PR stunt manner.

      This was a tragedy that has been compounded.

      PF Khans

    3. Sadly, PF fuck-up (and suck-up-) move-up has been the Army Standard since Caesar's day.

      And I'm not sure this officer would have fucked up if he'd have been in a conventional war. He had an enemy and he wanted fire support. His target location was wrong, but in regular engagement that happens. Sounds like this guy was the wrong guy for a counterinsurgency, yeah, but other than that...if he hadn't lied to cover his ass I'd have tended to transfer the guy and leave it there. "Aggressive" in conventional war is usually a good thing.

      But...he DID lie to cover his ass. So fuck him.

      But short of a court-martial there's no hope of salvaging anything out of this now...

    4. Chief,

      I appreciate your point about this being an immutable law of military organization. I hope I'm not giving the impression that I think it can be significantly better than it is now because I don't believe that.

      In this particular case, though, there were authorities in charge and it appears they just failed on down the line.
      1) the Taliban taking over the way they did reflects a failure
      2) GFC screwed up
      3) investigating officer(s) screwed up in tolerating breaking the rules and lying about it

      You're right that what's done is done, but recognizing that the repeated failure was a failure opens up the chance that the next time someone stops and says, 'wait, let me not do that dumb thing' next time.
      As for him being the right guy in a conventional war, I'm still not sold. I'm sympathetic with him keeping control of his assets instead of delegating to his subordinates. But you know that unobserved fires are ineffective fires and that's why this happened. He called in fires on a target he had no eyes on. It's never a good decision. At times it can be the least bad decision, but it's a waste of resources to turn over rocks in a wasteland in so many cases.

      So yeah, he's aggressive and that's better than passive, but another way to view this is event is micromanagement. Why wasn't the JTAC sent out with the group in contact? Why wasn't there a FO with them? Why were the resources far from the front with the GFC? It's entirely reasonable that the situation made those decisions really the best call at the time. It's also a real possibility that this GFC micromanaged a disaster.

  4. To All,
    So the unit cdr is gonna get popped and his(HER?) career ended.
    So what- he'll go to work at CIA paramilitary branch or get rich as a contractor.
    Heck, if he's a sof asset he can write a book, get rich and be idolized as a hero.
    Yes Chief and SO- a few buckets of paint are pretty cheap. If they carried canvas identifiers in case they moved facilities , then this clearly marks the facility.
    jim hruska

    1. Jim,

      Here's my question. Did GFC lie to cover his ass or his bosses bosses boss' ass? My guess is for his own ass but if he gets that contractor job or book deal... I don't know, looks shady.

      PF Khans

  5. PFK,
    in 1974 i attended IOAC and we had a block of instruction on CBR.THis was chem/bio/radiological ops.
    the standards taught in that course was that 35% civilian casualties were acceptable for planning purposes.
    when u think of it this is awfully low when 1 considers the national policy of mutual assured destruction.
    if we will destroy ourselves to destroy an enemy , then what does that say about us.?
    how is a suicide bomber any crazier than that?
    jim hruska

    1. Ironically, jim, I think it's easier for Joe and Mary Lunchpail to contemplate the deaths of millions in a conventional chemical war than the death of one individual who dynamites him- or herself to kill a handful of enemies.

      It's the whole suicide-commando thing; most people who consider war "do-able" believe that they themselves (and those they love) will survive it. Sure, people will die...but THEY are special snowflakes; surely no just Fate would kill them!

      But the suicide attack directly denies that foolish optimism. So it seems like a special horror to the 99% of the public that doesn't really think about this stuff...

    2. It's widespread. ;-)

  6. Regardless of the behavior of the USSF officer in charge of this clusterfuck, reading through the actual CENTCOM report some very odd things emerge.

    My initial understanding of this was that the bombardment was supposed to be suppressing direct fire coming from this supposed-prison-compound/actually-the-MSF-Trauma-Center. But if you go to page 38 of the PDF here (https://info.publicintelligence.net/CENTCOM-KunduzHospitalAttack.pdf) the prison is described as "...the target for a planned clearance operation."

    So at the time the target was selected it sounds as if no actual US or Afghan forces were in contact with Talibs, either in the supposed NDS prison OR the MSF hospital. It was a preparatory fire; a "prep".

    There's no real point in prepping a target without ground eyes-on to adjust the fire. And not having an OP on a prospective objective, especially one you're prepping? That's just stupid-infantry-101. Forget the ground-force commander's judgement of lack of same; not having a pair of human eyes on the supposed objective when you're prepping it was just bone-stupid.

    Apparently an Afghan troop movement was going on during the clearance of fires for the mistakenly identified MSF compound and they got shot at; that drove the US officer up the wall, and got him all hot to shoot up this place. But it sounds like this joker was doing all this over the radio and had no idea, or observation, of what was going on. Leading from the cop shop, apparently.

    The more I know the more effed up this whole business sounds.

    1. Well, isn't a more liberal employment of fires a natural consequence of giving combat troops more fire support than they need? Who's going to claim that ROE will reliably rein in on this?

      'accidents' like this may be systemic, rooted in the American way of war.

      Remember what the 8th air force did in 1945 when it ran out of reasonable targets: It joined the RAF in a day-and-night bombing of the refugee-filled city of Dresden. As late as 1945, when the war was already lost and additional wrecking of living quarters was going to impede the ground forces' advance more than help it.

    2. In an overall sense I'd agree, Sven; the U.S. "way of war" has, since at least 1942, been "never send a man when you can send a shell or a bomb". It wasn't just the USAAF; the US Army had a bad reputation even in WW2 for shelling the shit out of anything it could. Korea and Vietnam were, if anything, worse, and the '91 Second Gulf War and the '03 Third Gulf War continued that tradition.

      But...I don't get the sense that either the Iraq or Afghanistan occupations have been characterized by overwhelming use of firepower for the most part. Certainly there has been WAY too much use of fire in general, including small arms fire, in the counter-to-the-Vann-stricture-of-knives-as-the-best-weapons-of-counterinsurgency sense.

      But I don't get the sense that either place has been lavishly supplied with fire support. Certainly not artillery and even tac air seems to have been tough to come by on a lot of occasions.

      I think that the problem in this specific case was systemic rather than doctrinal; the guy calling for fire had no idea what the hell he was calling it on. He had no actual eyes on the target. He only had one 105mm cannon, but he might as well have called down a battalion six; he was just firing rounds unobserved, one of the biggest cardinal sins of the FA...

    3. That's because your expectations have been raised to sky high.

      What do you think is the most firepower a German infantry platoon could expect to get with a radio call in 1943?
      About two 81.4 mm mortars worth - but only if the other platoons of the company weren't under attack.

      U.S. Army platoon of 2008? Complains that the two AH-64 Apache attack helicopters need 20 minutes to arrive, the pinpoint accuracy GMLRS rocket takes ten minutes till effect, and unlike the day before a B-1B bomber with 20+ JDAMs on board is busy elsewhere. Hmm, did I mention the platoon has its own 120 mm mortar in its outpost, twice as many machineguns as Germans in '43, 40 mm GLs and plenty bazookas?
      BTW, to call for effectively unobserved fires means he ran out of observable targets that were not being clobbered yet, right? So either he was incompetent, or a coward, or impeded by command from moving to a better location, or trying to call in fires for too large a combat zone or he was really making use of excess firepower only because it's been available.

      And we al know this was certainly not the first time. It was merely the occasion when Westerners were hit, and a Western NGO raised an alarm that was attractive enough for Western news organisations. They sure shelled plenty civilians for no good reasons before they fucked up PR-wise that one time.