Unfair blame has come down on the heads of American soldiers and allied Afghan forces over an attack on a civilian hospital in Kunduz last year, while the general in charge of the mission, Major General Sean P. Swindell, faced no consequences, according to an Army officer who spoke exclusively to Mondoweiss.
“This thing was his fucking fault. That general right there avoided all blame,” said “Frank,” — not his real name — of Swindell.
“It sets a really, really bad precedent,” but falls into a broad pattern in the Army: Generals can get away with almost anything.
“I wish the general in charge was prosecuted for this, but that’s my personal opinion. He should be taking ultimate responsibility for it, since he set up the conditions that something like this would happen.”
More disturbing, Frank said he sees the same pattern of self-serving lies and statistics rigging (even inventing targets) to please the chain of command. It’s what happened in Vietnam, with privates, sergeants, captains, majors all reporting body counts as a sign of success, instead of making any meaningful evaluation of whether the United States was winning or losing (because we weren’t). Now, in Afghanistan, it’s number of “targets actioned,” drone hits or false arrests made in raids, that officers try to inflate. It’s the reason we’re losing, Frank feels. He was fed up.
Frank contacted me after reading a New York Times Magazine story, sincerely and skillfully reported from Afghanistan, that said the Afghan army might bear some responsibility for calling in an attack that killed 42 people, burning some alive in their hospital beds. More than that, the story alleges that Afghan security forces harbor suspicion of the charity organization that runs the hospital, Doctors Without Borders, and that might have lead them to “deliberately” target the building.
The army’s own report, according to the Times, includes indicators that the Afghans were partially to blame. Frank fears that the U.S. government is trying to pin blame not just on middle level officers, but also on the Afghan special forces, the Kta Khas (KKA), whose lives were at stake in the firefight.
Frank says that he doesn’t believe the allegation, nor does he believe the motive the Times offers — Afghan army hated MSF because it treated the Taliban — is valid, and neither do his colleagues. He’d blame the Afghans for corruption and desertion, but not premeditated murder.
“I knew the company commanders, I knew all of them, and there’s no way that somebody’s going to have a personal grudge against that hospital that said ‘You know, while we’re here, lets take this place out,'” he said.
Two months before the nightmare at Kunduz, a new general, Swindell, had yet again changed the relationship between the U.S. Army and their Afghan counterparts. A series of generals and colonels come through Kabul, and never develop a relationship with the place. Swindell was no different, taking a ‘my way or the highway’ approach, Frank recalls.
The Times talks about the Army being stretched thin and contorted as they became both comrades-in-arms and instructors in warfare for the Afghans. But The Times never says who was making those decisions that set the scene for the tragedy. That was Swindell, according to Frank.
“He wanted to push the Afghans into situations that their advisors, who’d been working with them for months, didn’t think they were ready for,” Frank said.
“He said he didn’t care,” he said. “His thing was getting all these targeting forces under his control, like trying to get all these targeting assets for SOJTF (Special Operations Joint Task Force), so he himself could make decisions as to which targets to strike.”
Swindell was transferred back to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida in February, after serving a six month stint in Afghanistan. Frank, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, remembers Swindell as being arrogant and overbearing.
“He was a fucking asshole,” he said.
Frank requested anonymity, fearing using his real name would end his career. He chose to take a risk and speak out because “the toxic leadership environment in the army is something that will not fix itself” and because he cares about Afghans who are being thrown under the bus.
“I made real connections there,” over the year he spent as a special operations officer, working with Afghans in order to train them to take over when all Americans forces, hypothetically, leave the country. There are people that I care about there,” he said.
He feels that blaming the Afghans fits into the Pentagon’s culture of pushing away blame whenever possible and bureaucratizing deadly violence. The culture resembles a typical police department, just one with many more guns.
“Even as a Colonel, you’re pretty much bulletproof,” Frank said. “I guess a Lt. Col. is still expendable,” he said.The Pentagon did not contradict any part of the Times investigation, which examines MSF’s role as a neutral provider of medical aid amid constant war. It supplied the Times comment after the publication of the story.
“The comprehensive investigation that followed the Kunduz tragedy determined that all members of both the ground force and the AC-130 aircrew were unaware that the aircraft was firing on a medical facility throughout the engagement,” Pentagon Spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement tacked to the bottom of the Times story.
“The investigation ultimately concluded that this tragic incident was caused by a combination of human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures,” he adds.
Frank doesn’t buy that.
“You can literally say that about anything that ever happens on any operation: human error, process failures and equipment failures. There are equipment failures on every mission and people mistakes on every mission,” he said. “That is such a bullshit non-answer.”
Swindell did get a little muddy, with his name appearing in a 2009 Foreign Policy article.
“Now the U.S. Defense Department is launching a politically charged probe into whether three American officers, Maj. Gen. Sean Swindell, Maj. Gen. Scott West, and Lt. Col. Jason Johnston will suffer the same fate,” the article states.
By “same fate,” the article is referring to the 2009 sackings of the “Germany’s defense minister, another senior official, and the country’s top military officer were all forced to resign,” following one German officer’s decision that lead to the accidental deaths as many as 150 Afghan civilians gathered around an oil tanker. The Germans had called in an air strike on non-combatants accidentally, and the consequences went to the top. The German Defense Minister’s American counterpart, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, did not see his name mentioned in the New York Times article. And neither did Swindell. Frank isn’t surprised that Swindell got off easier than lower ranking soldiers.
Swindell would have been, or should have been, watching the plane destroy the building in real time from surveillance above, Frank said. The building had a Doctors Without Borders logo on the roof. He should have known what his soldiers were doing at a critical moment.
Maj. Michael Hutchinson, the Times reports, was on the ground, helping to provide an AC-130 pilot with the shape of a building that Afghan forces said was a Taliban stronghold. The Times article reports that the army investigation judges him most responsible for the botched attack. He might have violated his authorization of force by calling in a strike to defend Afghan troops under fire.
“What they are asking him [Hutchinson] is ‘Why didn’t you die? Why didn’t you get everybody killed, instead of violating this authorization?” he said.
From his perch at the SOJTF in Kabul, Swindell should have been aware of what was happening, with his men trapped in a two day firefight for a city just overrun by the Taliban. That he didn’t know where the M.S.F building was, one of the few with lights on in the city, was “negligence,” Frank says, that ended in injured people dying one of the most horrifying deaths imaginable: burned alive while trapped in a hospital bed. A doctor quoted by the Times recalls hearing their screams as he fled the destruction from above.
“Swindell made sure he was in charge of everything, but when it came time to being accountable for something that happened, he said ‘That wasn’t my fault! It was the guy on the ground.’ He was the one who wanted to be in charge of everything, but he passed the buck like the worst possible leader.”
I reached out to Swindell but did not hear back.
Now he is a Major General. His new posting now is in Florida, after his tour in Afghanistan. The Pentagon announced the occasion thusly: “Maj. Gen. Sean P. Swindell, commander, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan/Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan, Resolute Support Mission/United States Forces-Afghanistan, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, Afghanistan, to director, J-8 (Force Structure, Requirements, Resources and Strategic Assessments), U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida.”
Frank said that makes sense in the wake of what happened in Kunduz.
“That’s definitely not a demotion,” he said. “More of a lateral move.”
I did find a quote from a younger Swindell on the website for U.S. Army Ft. Riley Kansas from a speech Swindell gave in accepting a position as the deputy commanding general for maneuver. At the time he was a Brigadier General. The headline for the article is “Group Commanders receive warm welcome.”
“Soldiering is an affair of the heart…My name is Sean Swindell, and I am…brave, responsible and on point for our nation,” he told some people in Kansas on August 13, 2013.
Frank would not agree with the responsible part. And, as for New York, Frank has lost faith in the paper of record, the New York Times.
“It’s just a mouthpiece for neoliberalism. And it’s very unfortunate, because they also do some very good work, but not when it’s related to America,” he said.
Here’s what neoliberal foreign policy means to Frank:
“Bomb the shit out of things; send in aid as a pretext for CIA operations. It’s just what we’ve been doing for the past hundred years. We just do it under a new regime,” he said. “Very unfortunately, neoliberalism is the only foreign policy we have right now.”
He stressed that what happened in Kunduz was something that happens in war: the most ghastly possible mistakes, with people in close proximity to death machines. There’s no way to wage a war without burning some children alive.
“This is war,” he said. “This is what happens in war.”