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US Special Forces Couldn’t See Afghan Hospital When They Called in Deadly Strike

New details have emerged about the location of US forces ahead of the deadly airstrike that killed 30 people and destroyed a Doctors Without Borders Hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Nov 12 2015, 6:15pm

Photo via MSF

When US Special Forces called in a deadly airstrike that killed 30 people at a Doctor's Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan, they were nearly half a mile away from the target at the time. In fact, when the team summoned an American AC-130 gunship to fire on the hospital on October 3, they could not see the fully functioning medical facility at all. Instead they were relying on the advice from Afghan troops who had long insisted that the hospital was a Taliban base. 

That's according to an anonymous former intelligence official who first leaked the news to the Associated Press last night. The location of US special forces at the time of the attack was also confirmed by Armed Services Committee member Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, whose office has in contact with soldiers in Kunduz. 

The Pentagon is currently conducting its own investigation of the incident, and did not respond to VICE News' request for comment on the latest account of the bombing.

"What we've said all along is that we want an independent international investigation," Tim Shenk a spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders, which goes by the French acronym MSF,  told VICE News after seeing the latest information. "We still haven't received an official explanation from the US government on this."

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The bombing of the hospital came in the midst of heavy fighting between the Taliban and US and Afghan government forces in early October. A small unit of the American 3rd Special Forces Group, around 35 soldiers, was helping approximately 100 Afghan troops to retake the city after the Taliban overran it weeks earlier.

In the month leading up to the battle, Afghan forces repeatedly asserted that the hospital was a base of operations for the Taliban. 

However, it never furnished evidence for the claims.  MSF has long maintained that, while the hospital treats patients on both sides of the conflict, it never ceded control of its facility to Taliban fighters. Last July, Afghan special forces raided the hospital looking for Taliban fighters, a move that MSF protested vigorously at the time.

In the days after the bombing, MSF called it 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." Afterwards, the US gunship strafed the facility with its high caliber machine guns. 

The AP also obtained a daily log kept by the commander of the US special forces troop in Kunduz that show the US was indeed aware the hospital was functioning and treating the wounded just days before the airstrike. But those same logs also indicate that the US military believed the hospital was being used by Taliban fighters. 

Related: NATO Was 'Praying' for MSF as the US Attacked Its Hospital in Kunduz

It's unclear how that intelligence found its way into the hands of US commanders, and if it was backed up with anything more than claims made by Afghan forces. 

VICE News contacted several Afghan government officials in Kunduz who confirmed that the conventional wisdom at the time was that the Taliban used the hospital as a base of operations. No evidence was ever provided to support the claim, and MSF has long maintained that it will give Taliban fighters medical care, along with anyone else wounded in the region. The hospital was the only fully functioning medical facility in all of Kunduz.

The latest details about the positioning of US forces is just the latest wrinkle in a constantly changing timeline of events in the lead-up to the bombing. The US military itself has repeatedly changed its story, making it difficult to nail down specific details. 

Immediately following the attack, 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." A day later, it clarified its original account, and admitted that the hospital had been directly struck — but provided no details about the circumstances.

The next day, the top US commander in Afghanistan, General John F. Campbell, claimed that the airstrike had been called in by Afghan forces fighting the Taliban nearby. Then, in an October 6 hearing on Capitol Hill, Campbell admitted that it was in fact US Special Forces — not the Afghan army — who communicated with the gunship.

President Barack Obama has since apologized for the attack, and the Pentagon has also admitted the bombing was a mistake. The Pentagon, NATO, and the Afghan government are all conducting investigations of the incident, but MSF has repeatedly said these probes are not enough, and called for an independent investigation. 

Watch VICE News' documentary Embedded in Northern Afghanistan: The Resurgence of the Taliban: