The deadly air strike that hit a hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz was a mistake made within the U.S. chain of command, the American commander of international forces in Afghanistan said on Tuesday.
Army General John Campbell also made clear he favored a rethink of a plan to withdraw almost all U.S. troops by the end of next year. He said rising threats in Afghanistan from the Islamic State and al Qaeda were among factors informing his recommendations to the White House on future troop levels.
Saturday\’s strike on an Afghan hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, or Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), killed 22 people and deeply angered the medical charity. MSF officials have blamed the United States, demanding an independent investigation into the incident and calling it a war crime.
Campbell said U.S. forces had responded to a request from Afghan forces and provided close air support as they engaged in a fight with Taliban militants in Kunduz, a provincial capital that the Taliban captured late last month.
"To be clear, the decision to provide aerial fires was a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command," Campbell said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He added that U.S. special forces nearby were communicating with the aircraft that delivered the strikes.
"A hospital was mistakenly struck," Campbell said. "We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility."
Campbell\’s comments were the most direct acknowledgement yet by the U.S. government that the strike on the hospital was carried out by U.S. forces. In a statement on Monday, Campbell said only that U.S. forces had responded to a request for support from Afghan forces.
President Barack Obama expected steps to be taken to prevent such an incident from recurring, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Tuesday.
The government of President Ashraf Ghani, heavily dependent on Washington for military support and far less critical of the United States than his predecessor Hamid Karzai, has held back from directly criticizing the United States.
But an Afghan military officer took issue with the idea that Afghan forces had called for a strike against the hospital.
Abdullah Guard, commander of Afghan special forces in Kunduz, said his men had been under heavy fire in the area near the hospital, fighting a Taliban force estimated at around 500 men.
"It is possible our forces might have called for an air strike to hit the enemy position, but that doesn\’t mean to go and bomb the hospital," he told Reuters. He was speaking before Campbell\’s testimony on Tuesday, in which the American general made clear the decision to conduct the strike was a U.S. one.
Campbell said on Tuesday he had directed forces under his command to undergo training to review operational authorities and rules of engagement to prevent further incidents like Kunduz.
The incident, along with the Taliban\’s capture of Kunduz, has cast renewed attention on the 14-year-long U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
Many members of Congress are deeply concerned about Obama\’s plans for a final withdrawal of U.S. forces. The president is reassessing the timetable for a drawdown that currently envisages removing all but about 1,000 U.S. soldiers by the end of 2016.