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U.S. Releases Final Report On Deadly Hospital Attack In Afghanistan


The Pentagon has punished 16 service members in connection with last year's deadly attack of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. But they are not facing serious penalties, like a court-martial. To talk about this, we are joined by NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. And Tom, if there will be trials or courts-martial, what kind of reprimands are these troops getting?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Kelly, some were removed from command. Others got letters of reprimand. Still others were retrained. Now, Gen. Joe Votel, the CENTCOM commander, briefed reporters and said there was no sense of criminal behavior here, no war crimes. For that, you need intent - intentionally going after civilians or something like a hospital. The general said the air crew did not know they were hitting a hospital.

MCEVERS: We're going to get some reaction from Doctors Without Borders in a moment, but let's talk now about why the Pentagon thinks this attack happened. And did anything new come out today?

BOWMAN: Well, the general said there was a missile fired toward the aircraft, so it moved away from the target area for a time. And that kind of messed up their understanding of the coordinates, and that led them to the wrong target. Now, Gen. Votel said he most surprised by the lack of communication between the air crew and the Americans on the ground. He said the talk was brief, concise, back and forth. But he said this confusing situation needed more discussion because no one, Kelly, really had a good situational awareness of what was happening on the ground.

MCEVERS: And so the Americans say there was a legitimate target, and then there was also a hospital. And the target obviously had people shooting, and the hospital did not. So, I mean, how did they not realize there was something wrong here? Why did they shoot at a hospital for at least half an hour?

BOWMAN: You know, I pressed Gen. Votel on that. It didn't make sense to me. You know, I flew in one of these AC-130 gunships during a mission in Baghdad years ago, and they have a bank of computer screens showing high-resolution pictures of the ground, so they should have seen something. So let's listen to what the general said.

JOSEPH VOTEL: It's not uncommon to not see fire coming from a - from a building or from a location. The enemy does adapt to how we operate, so they don't operate in quite an open fashion where we can always see everything that we have.

BOWMAN: And Doctors Without Borders, the group that ran the hospital, they weren't buying this. They put out a press release saying it's incomprehensible the attack was not called off because the U.S. says there was no fire coming from the hospital.

MCEVERS: As American commanders look back at this whole chain of event, was there any point at which someone could have acted differently and changed the course of events?

BOWMAN: Well, as the general said, there could have been better communication between the air crew and American troops on the ground. That would have helped. And also, the aircraft did not have a list of no-strike facilities on board. That obviously would've helped, as well. And, Kelly, when I read the report, something else jumped out at me. Right before the aircraft started shooting, someone they describe as the TV sensor operator onboard the AC-130 - probably a junior officer, an enlisted person - he identified - he or she identified the correct target. Now, after some discussion onboard the aircraft, it seems his superiors - his or her superiors decided instead to hit the other mistaken target - the hospital.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks so much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.