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Whistleblower: US General Sean Swindell bears responsibility for deadly Kunduz hospital attack

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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.

Maj. Gen. Sean Swindell

Maj. Gen. Sean Swindell

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.

It’s also a bit like the mafia, but with more Powerpoint presentations and fewer vicious beatings. Generals are “made” members of the organization, they can do no wrong. Or like tenured professors, who are right no matter what.

“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.”

Wilson Dizard

Wilson Dizard is a freelance reporter and photojournalist covering politics, civil rights, drug policy and everything else. He lives in Brooklyn with his bicycle, camera and drum set.

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22 Responses

  1. lysias on May 19, 2016, 11:32 am

    When the aircrew questioned the targetting, who ordered them to go ahead with the attack?

    • Citizen on May 24, 2016, 4:19 pm

      Uninfluential folks are still trying to find the answer to that question re the IAF attack on the USS Liberty.

  2. Theo on May 19, 2016, 1:03 pm

    The story is same all over the world, they prosecute the small ones and let the big ones go, and I don´t mean the size of the person.
    Reports and investigations are falsified all the times, generals, or even colonels will be transferred and the staff must face the music.

    Example: a few years ago a german colonel requested an airstrike from us on gasoline trucks in Afghanistan, our planes flew over and reported many civilians and children in the area. Colonel Schmidt demanded an airstrike regardless, that eventually killed more than 70 people, mostly civilians and children.
    Instead of courtmarshalling him, he was ordered back to Germany and promoted to a Brigadare General. It is the same dirt all over the world.

    • gamal on May 20, 2016, 5:03 am

      “The story is same”

      it is deja vu…all over again

      “Iraqis were in revolt against British rule. Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi declared a fatwa calling for a jihad against the invaders. After a period of peaceful protest armed rebellion began in Mosul in July 1920 and spread south, uniting Shia and Sunni Moslems.

      The Secretary for War, Winston Churchill, decided that the best (and cheapest) way to defeat the rebels was by bombing them into submission, using the new Royal Air Force. 97 tons of bombs were dropped. Poisonous gas may also have been used; Churchill stated, ‘I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes … [to] spread a lively terror’. Around 6,000 Iraqis lost their lives and by October 1920 the revolt had been subdued. The British then installed ‘Faisal I’, who had helped then during the War during the ‘Arab Revolt’ against the Turks, as puppet ‘king’ of the new country.”

    • Citizen on May 24, 2016, 4:24 pm

      Odd, compare the German Army leadership accountability mentioned in the main article here….

  3. David Doppler on May 19, 2016, 1:39 pm

    “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.”

    For deeper exploration of CIA history, methods and ‘purpose,’ including use of major media outlets like the NYT to propagandize its cover stories, see, David Talbot’s “The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government.”

    While foreign policy and CIA profess to support western-style democracy, in fact, it has used Communism and now Terrorism as excuses to destroy national governments, whether or not duly elected, and replace it with those the CIA can corrupt and control, for purposes that, without transparency, cannot be clearly determined. Those purposes may incorporate or hide behind multiple disguises – patriotism, national security, Anti-Communism, Capitalism, Anti-Terrorism, Zionism, human rights, but, given human nature, they are likely to boil down to preserving power for those few who exercise it.

    The unrest among the American populace with the establishment isn’t going to be resolved until the secret government is exposed and held to account for its many crimes. Generals and Defense Secretaries who avoid accountability have been corrupted by the secret government, who dole out absolution, and blame scapegoats, in exchange for obeisance.

    I predict Debbie Wasserman-Schultz will get knocked off in her primary on August 30 by an obscure academic, in a reprise of Eric Cantor’s surprise defeat a few years ago.

    People are fed up with the establishment.

  4. MRW on May 19, 2016, 4:48 pm

    I predict Debbie Wasserman-Schultz will get knocked off in her primary on August 30

    One can only hope.

  5. MRW on May 19, 2016, 4:49 pm

    Mondoweiss needs a sixth tab above: Exclusives. And keep them for posterity.

    • Sycamores on May 20, 2016, 5:56 am

      Hi MRW,

      i agree a new tab is needed. Btw there is already a sixth tab called Features

  6. echinococcus on May 19, 2016, 6:21 pm

    The building had a Doctors Without Borders logo on the roof. He should have known what his soldiers were doing at a critical moment.

    So what’s all that BS about the general only being responsible? There was a logo on the roof, visible, and all military shits involved who were not clinically blind deserve to hang together with their general, as per UCMJ. Period.

  7. Mooser on May 19, 2016, 6:56 pm

    “Now he is a Major General.”

    Hurrah for the Major General!

    ‘For his military knowledge, though he’s plucky and adventury,
    Has only been brought down to the beginning of last century;
    But still in matters vegetable, animal, and political,
    He’s the very model of a modern Major-General.’

  8. Sycamores on May 20, 2016, 5:52 am

    i trust the editors of this site and the articles they published. i have no doubt that this article is genuine and shows the sort of corruption that goes on among U.S. military elites.

    but what relevance does this article have with Mondoweiss?
    and if this is to counter the New York Times magazine story it fails because there is no evidences or credible witnesses ( “Frank,” — not his real name — cannot be class as a credible witness to be fair)

    again i’m not doubting “Frank” but without real names no main stream media outlet will take this serious.

    MRW is right about a new tab, maybe an Opinion tab?

    • Theo on May 20, 2016, 9:15 am

      You are trustworthy, I never trust anything printed unless I falsified it myself!!!!

      As far as Frank goes, you know what is awaiting you in the military if they have your real name? Noone in his right mind would risk that, therefore either an alias or no report!

      • Mooser on May 20, 2016, 12:24 pm

        “therefore either an alias or no report!”

        And sometimes first reports are not complete. If “Frank” is correct, there should be quite a bit of corroborative evidence. And sometimes the absence of evidence (records, reports) is pretty indicative, too.
        Took a long time to find out who “Deep Throat” was, and in the end, it didn’t matter much who he was. Not that I’ve ever seen the thing, of course.

      • Sycamores on May 20, 2016, 3:06 pm


        You are trustworthy, I never trust anything printed unless I falsified it myself!!!!

        you sir crack me up.
        alright i’ll change trust to respect.

      • Citizen on May 24, 2016, 4:37 pm

        @ Theo
        Having been a soldier of very low rank in the US Army, I cannot imagine anyone giving their real name when whistleblowing while still on active duty. Further, there’s an excellent reason why government workers of all sorts wait until they retire or don’t reenlist before whistleblowing.It’s also very foolish and naive to “go through the chain of command” to get heard.

    • annie on May 20, 2016, 12:42 pm

      sycamores, although i have not checked with either phil or adam they may have verified the identity of “frank”.

      i think US military operations in the ME and events surrounding them, including iraq, iran, syria and afghanistan are all relevant to the site although we primarily cover palestine/israel.

      and on a personal note, i have spoken with ex military people who have similar stories — some worse circumstances in fact.

      • Sycamores on May 20, 2016, 3:07 pm


        no issue with the verification of “Frank” identity i’m sure he was vetted by MW staff.

        i understand if “Frank” used his real name it would be career suicide.

        i don’t doubt what he saying either.

        but alias don’t raise to many eyebrows and sentences with the words ‘should have’ don’t help the article, in my view only.

        Swindell would have been, or should have been, watching the plane destroy the building in real time from surveillance above….

        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….

        fair point on the relevance.

  9. Balfour on May 20, 2016, 3:22 pm

    For my military knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury,
    Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
    But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

    -Gilbert and Sullivan, “The Pirates of Penzance”

  10. Vera Gottlieb on May 21, 2016, 9:21 am

    Too many murderers walking around free on this planet.

  11. DaBakr on May 21, 2016, 6:51 pm

    This is ash Carter’s , Ben rhoads and Obama’s military. What about their ‘blame’

  12. Amy1 on August 30, 2016, 4:54 am

    You care about Afghans? Get real. You only care about the rotten state of your military hierarchy and the impunity with which they can function and how its finally began to adversely affect your country. That’s all you care about. This whole “children are bound to get killed” jargon is mouthed to satisfy your cognitive dissonance. Why then criticize Israel if children are bound to get killed every one must come to terms with it and offer their kids to be slaughtered. I wonder when would Americans believe this for themselves as well just as they think others are obliged to sacrifice their children for their bloodthirsty imperial self interests.

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