"Human error" blamed for U.S. airstrike on Doctors Without Borders hospital

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday American forces violated the rules of engagement when they mistakenly bombed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders last month.

The airstrike in the northern city of Kunduz killed at least 30 civilians.

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An interior view of the MSF Trauma Center on October 14 2015, shows a missile hole in the wall and the burnt-out remains of the the building after what MSF described as a sustained attack on the facility in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan. Victor J. Blue/MSF

One of the worst accidents of the Afghan war was caused by what General John Campbell described as a perfect storm of mistakes committed by America's elite special operations forces.

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"This was a tragic but avoidable accident, caused primarily by human error," Campbell said.

After nearly five days of non-stop fighting in Kunduz, American commandos were holed up in a police station with Afghan troops. The Afghans requested a strike on a nearby government building which had been taken over by Taliban fighters, and an AC-130 gunship was called in by the American ground commander.

The gunship was given the coordinates of the government building, but its targeting system zeroed in on an open field instead. The air crew visually identified the closest structure that resembled the government building that they were supposed to strike.

They did not know it, but that building was in fact the hospital run by Doctors Without Borders.

Before opening fire, the gunship provided the coordinates of the target to a command center at Bagram Air Field.

Pentagon: Afghans called in U.S. airstrike that destroyed hospital

The command center knew those coordinates belonged to the hospital -- which was on a no-strike list -- but nobody put two and two together.

The gunship opened fire. Someone from Doctors Without Borders called Bagram to report the attack, but by the time the command center realized the mistake, the gunship had already ceased fire.

All this happened at a time when the American combat role in Afghanistan had supposedly ended.

Under the new rules of engagement, the American ground commander did not even have the authority to call in the strike.

Some of the commanders involved in the strike have been relieved of their duties and now face possible of disciplinary action.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.