Four days after the US bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, the official version of events continues to evolve.
Testifying in front of the Senate Armed Forces Committee on Tuesday, General John Campbell admitted for the first time that US Special Forces on the ground called in a strike from an AC-130 gunship, killing 12 medical staff and 10 patients on Saturday.
It's the fourth time in as many days that the official US version of the attack has shifted.
The hospital bombing occurred as US and Afghan forces moved to retake the city of Kunduz from the Taliban over the weekend. As Afghan and Taliban forces fought a pitched battle for control of the city on Saturday, a US airstrike struck the city's only major civilian hospital, which was operated by Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
MSF, which prides itself on treating wounded individuals on both sides of the conflict, called the attack a "war crime" and a "grave violation of international law." MSF said that even though it provided US forces with the GPS coordinates for the facility, the main central hospital building, which houses the intensive care unit, emergency rooms, and physiotherapy ward, was "repeatedly hit very precisely" by bombs for more than an hour, "while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched."
Over the past few days, MSF has challenged US officials to provide a full account of the events leading up to the strike, and to justify the use of force against a known hospital.
But so far, the details of the strike have remained murky. Early Saturday morning, the Pentagon would not confirm that the strike actually hit the hospital, despite detailed accounts from MSF staff that described patients being "burned to death as they lay in their beds," and wounded doctors dying on makeshift operating tables.
'Even though the Afghans requested that support, it still has to go through a rigorous US procedure to enable fires to go on the ground.'
Immediately following the bombing, the Pentagon released a statement saying the hospital had been "collateral damage" in an airstrike against "individuals threatening" Afghan forces that were "in the vicinity." On Sunday, it clarified its original account, admitting that the hospital had been directly struck — but provided no details about the circumstances.
Then, in a press conference on Monday, General Campbell further modified the official version of events, suggesting to journalists that the strike had been called in by Afghan forces fighting the Taliban nearby.
He also blamed the Taliban for creating the conditions that made the strike necessary. "Unfortunately, the Taliban decided to remain in the city and fight from within, knowingly putting civilians at significant risk of harm," he said, adding that the insurgents had "purposely chosen a fight from within a heavily urbanized area."
But during Tuesday's hearing, Campbell admitted that it was in fact US Special Forces — not the Afghan army — who communicated with the gunship. He clarified that the strike was merely requested by Afghan forces, but still insisted that the buck stopped with the US military. "Even though the Afghans requested that support, it still has to go through a rigorous US procedure to enable fires to go on the ground," he told the committee. "We had a special operations unit that was in close vicinity that was talking to the aircraft that delivered those fires."
Campbell said that an internal investigation is underway — in addition to separate NATO and Afghan probes — though he would not provide a timeline for a final report. He did, however, offer assurances that preliminary findings would be available within 30 days.
MSF quickly criticized the general's testimony and reiterated its call for an independent investigation. "Today's statement from General Campbell is just the latest in a long list of confusing accounts from the US military," Jason Cone, MSF-USA executive director, said in a statement to VICE News. "They are now back to talking about a 'mistake'. A mistake that lasted for more than an hour, despite the fact that the location of the hospital was well known to them."
Democratic and Republican senators on the committee did not seem particularly concerned with the Kunduz strike, and appeared satisfied with the general's response.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas blamed hospital attack on the Taliban. "The Taliban like our enemies in Iraq, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza, intentionally target civilians, and intentionally use civilians as shields," he said. "Is there anyone at root to blame for this incident other than the Taliban for going into a civilian area and fighting among civilian targets?"
This echoed accusations made by the Afghan government that the MSF hospital was harboring Taliban fighters. But MSF officials have repeatedly insisted no such fighters were present during the attack.
Democratic senators on the committee glossed over the attack, instead pressing Campbell on the timeline for US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the degree of corruption in the Afghan government.
Senator John McCain, the chairman of the committee, also downplayed the hospital attack. "We deeply regret this tragedy," he said at the closing of the hearing, suggesting the incident resulted from "the fog of war."
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro