In October 2015, the US military struck a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 42 civilians. While the Pentagon has blamed the incident on a number of factors, a new report suggests that systemic confusion led to the tragedy – and could cause many others.
As the US wages military campaigns in multiple countries it’s not officially at war with, soldiers have become increasingly unclear about the parameters of their job.
"'How far do you want to go?' is not a proper response to 'How far do you want us to go?'" one Special Forces member said, according to the recently declassified Pentagon report.
"It’s not a strategy and, in fact, it’s a recipe for disaster in that kind of kinetic environment."
While told to recapture the city of Kunduz, soldiers say they were never clearly informed of the limits of engagement. The Special Forces member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that his unit asked commanders three times for a clarification of combat rules.
"Sadly, the only sounds audible were the sounds of crickets…though those were hard to hear over the gunfire."
Part of the confusion is the result of multiple forces operating in the region, with often conflicting regulations. The roughly 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan are divided between a NATO train-and-assist mission and a counterterrorism operation that is not connected to the broader coalition.
For the NATO operation, attacking Taliban targets is only permitted in cases of "self-defense." But with a shifting definition, that self-defense sometimes includes defending Afghan allies.
The counterterrorism mission has its own complications, with unclear rules about who it is authorized to attack. While militants associated with al Qaeda and Daesh, also known as IS/Islamic State, are fair game, the Taliban is not, even as al-Qaeda is increasingly proven to be working with the Taliban.
According to the report, one Green Beret called the lack of guidance "moral cowardice," which allows US leaders to "reap the rewards of success without facing the responsibility of failure."
US military spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland claimed that over 9,000 troops were "retrained" after the Kunduz bombing, but few remain confident that clarity issues have been resolved.
"The rules of engagement are trapped in the jaws of political confusion about the mission," a senior Western official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Nobody in Western capitals seems willing to admit that Afghanistan is a worsening war zone and…that their troops are still battling out a combat mission on a daily basis."