The American air strike on a Kunduz hospital was a mistake, the top US commander in Afghanistan acknowledged Tuesday as he urged Washington to consider boosting its post-2016 military presence to repel a Taliban upsurge.
General John Campbell pointed to various “setbacks” in battling insurgents in Afghanistan, including those who briefly seized control of the northern city of Kunduz.
He said Afghan security forces’ “uneven performance in this fighting season also underscores that their shortfalls will persist well beyond this year.”
Kunduz was the site of a US air strike on a hospital that killed 22 people on October 3, an attack that Campbell described as an error.
“A hospital was mistakenly struck,” he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding that “we would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.”
The general stressed that while it was the Afghans who called for the strike, ultimately the decision to launch rested with Americans.
“Our forces provided close air support to Afghan forces at their request,” Campbell said.
“To be clear, the decision to provide aerial fire was a US decision made within the US chain of command.”
Campbell reiterated that three separate investigations were being conducted. He also said US officials were communicating with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the medical charity that was operating in the hospital when it was struck, to get “all sides of the story.”
MSF branded the strikes a war crime, and has pulled out of Kunduz in the aftermath of the attack.
Campbell said US special forces were “on the ground doing train, advise and assist” (TAA) in the area near the hospital shortly before the strike.
‘Decisive point’ for Afghanistan
The United States is reviewing whether to press ahead with its plan to reduce the number of its troops in the war-torn country to an embassy-based force of about 1,000 beginning in 2017.
But Campbell warned that the “tenuous security situation” might require a reversal of that drawdown.
Asked if a change was warranted, Campbell said that “based on conditions on the ground, based on the transitions I have talked about, I do believe that we have to provide our senior leadership options different than the current plan that we’re going with, absolutely.”
Afghanistan is at “a decisive point” given the surge in violence, said Campbell who noted the growing presence of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda fighters in the country even while praising Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as a strong and willing US partner.
Campbell said he has provided President Barack Obama with “recommendations to adjust to the new environment while addressing our core missions: train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces and conduct counterterrorism operations to protect the homeland.”
Campbell did not reveal his troop level recommendations.
US forces in Afghanistan currently stand at about 9,800, a number that was supposed to have been halved by the end of 2015. But Campbell said Obama had provided him with “flexibility” to slow the drawdown.
“If you go to just embassy only, our ability to do TAA is limited,” Campbell said.
“We would not have the ability to conduct counterterrorism as I do today if we were just based in Kabul.”
As a sign of the changing security landscape and counterterrorism challenges in the country, he said that Daesh, the Arabic name for the Islamic State group, now has between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters in Afghanistan.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions warned that downsizing to 1,000 US troops would signal that Washington was retreating from the counterterrorism fight.
“I think that’s a dangerous signal to be sending,” Sessions said.