American forces stationed in Afghanistan are confused about the nature of their mission, a newly-declassified Pentagon report shows.
Witness accounts included in the heavily redacted 700-page report reveal that when Taliban militants captured the northern Afghan city of Kunduz last year, US Special Forces involved in the ensuing fierce battle repeatedly asked their commanders how far they were allowed to go in efforts to retake the city.
The American forces even attacked a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the city, striking it with a US Air Force AC-130 gunship for more than an hour. The attack left 42 people dead, and 37 more injured.
“‘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 told investigators probing the attack.
Although much of the report is blacked out for security reasons, it still sheds light on how baffled American forces become while trying to understand the rules of engagement.
“The rules of engagement are trapped in the jaws of political confusion about the mission,” Reuters quoted a senior Western official as saying.
“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,” added the official.
The special forces have complained that failure to provide clear guidance represented “moral cowardice.”
The new US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, is expected to raise the issue with the administration of President Barack Obama about Washington’s overall strategy in the war-torn country.
“It’s not a strategy and, in fact, it’s a recipe for disaster in that kind of kinetic environment,” said the soldier, who, like others in the report, was not identified,” the general said, adding that his unit asked three times for commanders to clarify the rules governing their mission.
However, US military spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland denied confusion among troops over the broader mission.
He said more than 9,000 US soldiers have been “retrained” on the rules of engagement following the Kunduz failures, in a bid by the US military to reduce future misunderstandings.
Until the end of 2014, when their combat role officially ended, NATO forces in Afghanistan peaked at more than 130,000 troops, most of them American.