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Oct. 8, 2015
Notes from the Pentagon

Were Taliban holed up in Doctors Without Borders hospital?
The circumstances surrounding the recent U.S. AC-130 gunship attack on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, remain shrouded in military secrecy.

President Obama already apologized to the group — without awaiting the results of two military investigations — and Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in the country, called the bombing a mistake. A total of 22 people, including 12 aid workers, were killed in the attack Saturday.

Details of the incident remain murky. The Pentagon and military have declined to discuss the details, citing the ongoing investigations. Gen. Campbell initially said he expected to have key findings of the probe within days, but then backed off making public an early conclusion during his Senate testimony Tuesday.

The key question left unanswered is whether Taliban fighters being pursued by U.S. and Afghan special operations forces in the area were inside the hospital and firing weapons when Afghans radioed for the U.S. airstrike.

Initial reports stated that U.S. forces on the ground were taking direct fire when the airstrike was called, but that was later found to be false.

A defense official said early indications are that Taliban fighters were inside the hospital. The official, however, dismissed as implausible one theory that the hospital attack may have been the result of a Taliban deception operation designed to induce the U.S. military to conduct a mistaken bombing of a civilian target. Civilian casualties have been a recurring problem for military operations in the country and have been exploited by the Taliban for propaganda operations.

Another theory is that an Afghan Security Force insider sympathetic to the Taliban may have falsely radioed in a call for air support by claiming the Taliban were using it as a combat base. The idea behind this theory is that an airstrike on the hospital would be a military blunder causing civilian casualties and would undermine international support for U.S. and allied forces.

The main theory, however, is that the hospital attack was a mistake in the middle of a war and caused by unclear communications between Afghan and U.S. forces.

Doctors Without Borders executives have acknowledged that Taliban may have been inside the medical facility — but as patients being treated for wounds and not as combatants.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Tuesday tried dispel reports the U.S. military is looking the other way as Afghan officials routinely engage in sexual assaults against boys.

But Gen. John F. Campbell sidestepped questions about the military’s practice of ignoring child sex abuse by stating that cases dating from 2010 to 2012 occurred before he was commander.

“I didn’t have anything to do with those cases,” Gen. Campbell said. “Any reports that would come to me, I would make sure we provided that to the Afghan government as well.”

The subject of Afghan military leaders’ pedophilia was highlighted in a New York Times report Sept. 20. The report quoted U.S. soldiers as saying they struggled to deal with rampant child sexual abuse, including hearing the screams of boys being sexually abused by Afghan police officers as part of a practice called bacha bazi, or “boy play.”

Gen. Campbell insisted that there is no policy of the U.S. military to ignore the abuse. The four-star general said he raised the abuse issue with senior Afghan leaders, both political and military, and was told it was not allowed.

“They absolutely understand this is criminal conduct,” Gen. Campbell said. “And they understand that they have to do something about it. And they want to hold people accountable. Are there going to be people that disregard that in Afghanistan, just like you would have maybe in any other country? Yes.”

The sexual exploitation of children is being done by “a few members of the Afghan Security Forces,” he said.

“All of us consider this reprehensible. This criminal practice is entirely unacceptable and unacceptable to the Afghans as well.”

Gen. Campbell said his troops are doing everything “within our power to defend and protect human rights.”

“That’s our moral obligation to you, the American people and ourselves, and I’ve ordered 100 percent training of the force to ensure that they understand our human rights policy, which has been in place since at least 2011,” he said.

The policy requires all personnel to report suspected human rights violations by the Afghan Security Forces, including sexual abuse of children.

The problem arose as U.S. forces recruited and organized Afghan militias to hold territory against the Taliban. Instead of getting rid of the pedophiles when they were discovered, American military continued to arm them and village commanders did little when they were found to be abusing children.

One Special Forces soldier, Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland, was reprimanded after he confronted and beat an Afghan leader in 2011 who was raping a 12-year-old boy.

The Family Research Council has started a petition calling on the Pentagon to clear Sgt. Martland and to investigate whether the Pentagon ignored the abuse as a matter of policy. The petition so far has some 160,000 signatures.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin said Afghanistan has a 1,400-year tradition of men raping boys.

“If America won’t stand up to this evil, why in the hell are we wasting our blood and treasure on these people?” Gen. Boykin said. If the American military is condoning the practice, “we have to be real worried about our military.”

American weapons systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks from foreign militaries in a conflict, the deputy defense secretary told Congress recently.

“It is a big problem,” Robert Work, deputy secretary of defense, said during Senate Armed Services Committee testimony. “Many of the weapons systems that we have now were not built to withstand a concerted cyberthreat.”

The Pentagon is conducting a detailed assessment of every weapons system. The effort is being led by Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall, who is in charge of acquisition, technology and logistics.

The assessment is nearing completion, and the results will be presented to Congress as required by a provision of last year’s defense authorization bill.

The report will outline the vulnerabilities to cyberattacks by advanced nations such as Russia and China, which are developing electronic and cyberweapons designed to disable high-technology arms.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, pressed Mr. Work on the weapons vulnerability report during the hearing Sept. 29. He said an initial assessment was expanded from security holes in satellites, missiles and missile defenses to the entire U.S. weapons arsenal. Some $200 million was added to fund the assessment.

“We don’t have that final report. I believe it’s overdue,” said Mr. Sessions, chairman of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

Mr. Work said the report is in “final deliberations” and is an interagency project.

The report is being overseen by Mr. Kendall with input from the U.S. Cyber Command and other Pentagon and military cybersecurity specialists.

All new weapons systems are having cybersecurity integrated into the design “so that when we build they will have cyberdefenses built in from the beginning,” Mr. Work said.

Defense contractors also are vulnerable to cyberattacks, and the Pentagon has tightened security to protect foreign nations from gaining access to vital weapons secrets.

China successfully penetrated a defense contractor in gaining access to key design and equipment used in developing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to National Security Agency documents made public by renegade contractor Edward Snowden.

Mr. Work also stated that the Pentagon is also working with the Energy Department to harden nuclear command-and-control systems against cyberattacks.

The effort seeks to “make sure that our weapons system components are reliable and trusted, and to make sure that we have a safe, reliable and effective nuclear deterrent,” Mr. Work said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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