U.S. Commander In Afghanistan Says Kunduz Hospital 'Mistakenly Struck'



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At the first Congressional hearing on the fighting in Afghanistan since a U.S. plane fired on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, the top U.S. commander is in the hot seat. Gen. John Campbell is expected to face questions Tuesday about why the hospital was targeted, as the White House mulls keeping a residual force of up to 5,000 in Afghanistan beyond 2016.

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The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan began answering questions on Capitol Hill today about what led to an attack on a hospital in Kunduz. General John Campbell revealed limited details but did call it a mistake. Twenty-two people were killed over the weekend by the airstrikes that hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital. NPR's David Welna has more.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As today's hearing on Afghanistan opened, anti-war demonstrators with blood-like paint smeared on their faces occupied the front row. One made her protest vocal.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Bombing hospitals is a war crime. Stop the bombing now. Bombing hospitals is a war crime.

WELNA: The panel's Republican chairman, John McCain, ordered her removal.


JOHN MCCAIN: I will not tolerate a disruption of the workings of this committee, and I will say that anyone who does will be arrested. Not ejected but arrested. I want to make that very clear.

WELNA: There was little sense of outrage on the panel about the hospital airstrike, and in his six-minute opening statement, McCain made no mention of it. But General Campbell was quick to bring it up, and he put responsibility for the incident squarely on the forces he commands.


GENERAL JOHN CAMPBELL: The decision to provide aerial fires was a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command. A hospital was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.

WELNA: But Campbell would not say how such a mistake happened.


CAMPBELL: I must allow the investigation to take its course, and therefore I'm not at liberty to discuss further specifics at this time. However, I assure you that the investigation will be thorough, objective and transparent.

WELNA: Chairman McCain asked if it was true the airstrike had been requested by Afghans on the ground, but Campbell deflected any blame on them.


CAMPBELL: Even though the Afghans request that support, it still has to go through a rigorous U.S. procedure to enable fires to go on the ground.

MCCAIN: But there was no forward - American forward air controllers on the ground?

CAMPBELL: Sir, we had a special operations unit that was in close vicinity that was talking to the aircraft that delivered those fires.

WELNA: That left it clear it was American military on the ground and in the hospital's vicinity who called in the airstrikes. Still, Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton suggested others bore responsibility for the attack.


TOM COTTON: Is there anyone at root to blame for this incident other than the Taliban for going to a civilian area and fighting among civilian targets?

CAMPBELL: Sir, the investigation will tell me as I get the facts on that, but, as you mentioned, the Taliban did go into Kunduz. The Taliban did know that they were going to cause a fight inside a built-up area.

WELNA: New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen did point out to General Campbell that human rights advocates have challenged the credibility of only military investigations of the incident being carried out.


JEANNE SHAHEEN: Do you have any reason to object to having an independent investigation done by the U.N., or another independent body, of what happened?

CAMPBELL: Ma'am, I have trust and confidence in the folks that will do the investigation for NATO, the folks that'll do the investigation for DOD and then the Afghan partners.

WELNA: As for the future U.S. role in Afghanistan, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham questioned the current plan to reduce the 9,800 U.S. troops there to a thousand by the end of next year.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do you agree with me if we go down to a thousand forces, a thousand people, Kabul-centric, embassy-centric, like, 90 percent chance that the country falls apart?

CAMPBELL: Sir, I don't know if I would put a percentage on it. Sir, what I would say is, our ability to provide train, advise and assist and continue to grow the Afghan forces would be very limited.

GRAHAM: What about the counterterrorism mission?

CAMPBELL: Just from Kabul I could not do a counterterrorism mission.

WELNA: Campbell agreed more troops would be needed. How many more, he would not say. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.