For four days in October, the Pentagon’s top generals and civilian bosses frantically shifted verbs, tenses and explanations like frenzied truckers grinding their gears on a perilous mountain road with no guardrails.
Careening through twists and turns, climbs and plunges, the generals and their bosses struggled to keep their runaway rigs rolling through an endless fog. Worse yet, this was a fog of their own making. And they knew they only made it worse every time they misspoke.
Back home, we quickly realized some sort of sickening tragedy happened on Saturday, Oct. 3, at a charity hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. A U.S. gunship had launched an airstrike to help Afghan ground troops retake the city they’d stunningly lost to Taliban forces. But multiple airstrikes decimated a sprawling Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing 22 doctors, staff, patients and children, and wounding dozens more.
It was one of the worst civilian disasters of the long and long-troubled Afghan war. Yet for days afterward, in a crisis that cried out for clarity, we were fogged in by official misinformation about how and why the atrocity happened.
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Here’s what we were being told, day by day:
Day One, Saturday, Oct. 3: A U.S. military spokesperson in Afghanistan issued a deliberately minimalist report: “U.S. forces conducted an airstrike in Kunduz city at 2:15 a.m. (local), Oct. 3, against individuals threatening the force. The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility. This incident is under investigation.”
“Collateral damage” – the understatement led America’s media to bury the news.
Day Two, Sunday, Oct. 4: Hospital officials in Kunduz noisily spread the shocking truth – at least 19 were killed, including three children. They blamed a U.S. airstrike. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded a “thorough and impartial investigation.” Finally it was Page 1, prime time news everywhere.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke with reporters while flying to Spain. (Note: I’ve known Carter for years as a Harvard expert who is wise and scrupulously honest.) Carter emphasized that he only had “early facts” that “can be misleading.” He confirmed American forces were involved in some sort of “air action” in Kunduz. And importantly, he said “American forces there were engaged in the general vicinity” and “did report that they, themselves, were coming under attack. That much I think we can safely say.” Well, no we can’t. Top generals now doubt U.S. forces were under attack from within the hospital.
Day Three, Monday, Oct. 5: Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, briefed Pentagon reporters and uttered two preposterous assertions. First, he tried to blame the Afghan military for calling in the U.S. airstrike on the hospital. Second, he bizarrely described the slaughter of what we now know was 22 innocents as merely “several” civilians. “We have now learned that on Oct. 3, Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. forces,” Campbell said. “An air strike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck.”
It is incomprehensible that an intelligent general would describe such carnage in such understated terms. When that has happened in decades and wars past, it usually signaled a government or military atrocity was in the process of being covered up.
Day Four, Tuesday, Oct. 6: Gen. Campbell, perhaps sensing his failings of the day before, shifted explanations significantly. He told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing the airstrike resulted from “a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command.” Other Pentagon officials reportedly said Campbell now believes no Afghan or U.S. troops were under severe threat from the hospital facility. And the general was now described as believing Special Operations Forces that called for the airstrike failed to have “eyes on” the target, as required by U.S. rules of military engagement and also failed to follow other requirements. A new internal Pentagon investigation has begun.
So it was that, for four days in October, we were bombarded by a blizzard of official lies. But we don’t yet know whether we were the only ones being deceived. Were America’s top generals and their civilian bosses also being misled by their subordinates?
Perhaps this was the week when the Pentagon’s top brass was caught in a rare command updraft – a blizzard of lies that may have swept out of Afghanistan and right up America’s military chain of command.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.