I’ve already written a lot about the Kunduz Air Strike and could hardly fail to comment on the just-released report of the US military on this horrible incident.
My first comment is actually a question. Where exactly is the report? I can’t find it online. Was it just released in hard copy to some journalists? There are news stories about it but I don’t see it.
Second, I think it’s fair to point out that there have been a number of attacks on medical facilities over the last couple of years, including by the governments of Syria, Russian and Saudi Arabia. I’m not tracking this issue in minute detail but so far as I’m aware none of these governments have investigated their air strikes. At least the US has investigated the Kunduz Air Strike.
We’ve know for a while that the US would argue that the attack resulted from an improbable string of errors and malfunctions but was not intentional. This is certainly a plausible scenario. However there are at least two reasons why no one with a skeptical turn of mind can be fully convinced:
- The US trumpeted this conclusion before the full investigation.
- The US refused to allow an independent investigation (Again, it’s not like Saudi Arabia plumped for a vigorous investigation but that’s a separate matter.)
I can’t agree with those who say that it is impossible for the US military to have such a screw up given its incredible technological sophistication.
Nobody the Guardian spoke to seemed to believe that a military with such sophisticated equipment and surveillance would mistake a hospital.
I’m baffled by this mind set and can only conclude that anyone thinking this must never have attempted to operate a DVR.
That said, I am surprised by some of the things in this NYTImes report.
The aircraft took off in haste … As a result, the crew … did not have a list of no-strike targets, including the hospital, which was nearby.
Are these lists on some pin drive that someone has to grab while running off to a helicopter? I would have thought that they would be built into the helicopter’s systems.
As the gunship approached Kunduz, insurgents fired a missile at it, forcing it outside its normal flight path. As a result, the aircraft targeting system became misaligned, and coordinates that should have identified the target building instead marked an empty field.
This makes it sound like the targeting system can’t function if there is enemy fire. If so, that would be a pretty big weakness in a targeting system.
The NYTimes then says that the compromised targeting system picked out a place in an empty field (See this post on precision air strikes). Since that couldn’t be the target the crew identified something else (the hospital) that looked like it might be the real target.
The NYTimes gives side by side photographs of the real target and the presumed target. This presentation may be unfair to the crew since, I presume, they didn’t see these images side by side. Still, I don’t think they look very similar. I’ve been lost many times myself I can easily understand how someone who wanted to believe he’d found the target could believe that he really had found the target. Still, with such high stakes I’d hope that air crews would understand how easy it is to be fooled and would be more skeptical than they seem to have been.
It then says that the targeting system returned to proper alignment and pointed to the correct target but the crew stuck with the hospital anyway. Again, I can see the cognitive bias at work. We know that people don’t like to admit they are wrong and correct their errors. But, again, with the stakes so high you’d hope for a better error-correction mechanism.
Perhaps the crew felt that they had to act to help their comrades on the ground. But striking an incorrect target isn’t actually helpful so the desire to do something should be resisted.
Finally, it says that MSF demanded a stop to the bombing 11 minutes in but it continued for an additional 19 minutes. This strikes me as the least damning aspect of the report. Both of those reaction times seem surprisingly fast to me. Unfortunately, thirty minutes is plenty of time to wreak huge havoc. So emphasis has to be on stopping these attacks before they start rather than on aborting them after they start.
Also, MSF says that the attack lasted longer than 30 minutes. I would have to change the above paragraph if this is true. This disagreement is a cost of the US going it alone on the investigation.
In summary, even if we accept everything in the military report as presented by the NYTimes it is not reassuring.