By Lisa Ferdinando DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, October 6, 2015 — The investigation into the U.S. airstrike that struck a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, will be thorough and objective, the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission and U.S. forces in Afghanistan told a Senate panel here today.
Army Gen. John F. Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States provided close-air support at the request of Afghan national defense forces on Oct. 3.
"A hospital was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility," the general said.
Campbell said U.S. special operations forces were providing training, advice and assistance to Afghan national defense forces who were engaged in a "tenacious fight" with the Taliban.
More than 20 people were killed in the airstrike that hit a hospital used by the international aid group Doctors Without Borders.
The deaths were "tragic loss of lives," Campbell said. The United States makes extraordinary efforts to protect civilians, he said.
Carter Issues Statement on Kunduz Hospital Strike
And in a statement issued today following Campbell’s appearance before the Senate panel, Defense Secretary Ash Carter reiterated that the airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders field hospital was a mistaken attack.
“Doctors Without Borders does important work all around the world, and the Department of Defense deeply regrets the loss of innocent lives that resulted from this tragic event,” Carter said in his statement. “The investigation into how this could have happened is continuing, and we are fully supporting NATO and Afghanistan's concurrent investigations.
“We will complete our investigation as soon as possible and provide the facts as they become available,” Carter continued. “The U.S. military takes the greatest care in our operations to prevent the loss of innocent life, and when we make mistakes, we own up to them. That's exactly what we're doing right now. Through a full and transparent investigation, we will do everything we can to understand this tragic incident, learn from it, and hold people accountable as necessary.”
Campbell emphasized during his appearance before the Senate panel today that "no military in history has done more to avoid harming innocents. We readily assume greater risks to our own forces in order to protect non-combatants.”
The Department of Defense, NATO and the Afghans are all investigating the airstrike, Campbell said.
The record of the United States is in stark contrast to the actions of the Taliban, who have "repeatedly violated the laws of war by intentionally targeting civilians," Campbell said. "The United Nations attributes more than 70 percent of the non-combatants killed and wounded in this war to the Taliban."
"Afghanistan is at a critical juncture, and so is our campaign," Campbell said.
The current fighting season in Afghanistan is fundamentally different than past years, the general said, explaining that Afghan forces were "totally on their own" after the United States transitioned from combat operations to an advisory role.
"Intense combat continues in many parts of the country," Campbell said. "The Afghan security forces have been severely tested this year, but they continue to fight hard."
Since February, the fighting has been nearly continuous, he said.
"Casualties on both sides have risen and the violence has moved beyond the traditional insurgent strongholds," Campbell said.
There have been setbacks, the general said, including when the Taliban recently overran Kunduz city.
"Still, the Afghan security forces rallied and they've regained control of most of the cities, just as they've successfully retaken other ground temporarily lost throughout this fighting season," he said.
But the "inconsistent performance" of the Afghan security forces in Kunduz underscores some of their shortcomings, Campbell said.
"They must improve their intelligence fusion, command and control [and] utilization of their forces. They don't possess the necessary combat power and numbers to protect every part of the country," he said.
Afghan forces also face capability gaps in fixed and rotary wing aviation, combined arms, intelligence and maintenance, the general said.
But, Campbell said, despite the challenges, the Afghan security forces have displayed courage and resilience.
Failure in the mission, he said, would result in Afghanistan becoming a sanctuary for terrorists "bent on attacking our interests and citizens abroad and at home."
President Barack Obama is aware of the "tenuous security situation" in Afghanistan, Campbell said.
Exploitation of Children
Campbell told senators he would also "like to discuss the sexual exploitation of children by a few members of the Afghan security forces."
The exploitation of children is "reprehensible," the general said. "This criminal practice is entirely unacceptable and unacceptable to the Afghans as well."
The U.S. human rights policy, Campbell explained, requires U.S. personnel to report any suspected human rights violations committed by the Afghan security forces, including the sexual abuse of children.
"We'll do everything within our power to defend and protect human rights. That's our moral obligation to you, the American people and ourselves," he said.
Honoring U.S., Afghan Forces
"Since 2001, the exceptional efforts and courage of our forces have ensured that another terrorist attack originating from Afghanistan and directed against the U.S. homeland has not occurred," he said.
Military families are the "unsung heroes" of the last 14 years, Campbell said.
"Without their love and support, we could not succeed," he said.
The general honored the more than 2,200 servicemen and women who have been killed in Afghanistan and the more than 20,000 who have been wounded.
"Tragically, we lost 14 personnel to include six airmen and four contractors -- U.S. contractors -- last Friday in an aircraft mishap," he said.
"We always remember the Afghans in our own fallen and the loved ones they left behind," he said. "Every day we honor their memories by assisting the Afghans to build a stable and secure country and by protecting our homeland."