Updated at 9:30 a.m. on February 3, 2021.
Both the Trump and Obama administrations relied heavily on highly trained Special Forces units to keep Afghanistan from collapse. The strategy has kept recent episodes of the 20-year Afghan War out of the public eye, but it is failing to stabilize the country and is straining the United States military’s elite troops, who serve back-to-back combat tours without an end in sight and disproportionately give their lives in service of a war the public knows almost nothing about.*
When Kunduz, a major city in northern Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban in 2015, U.S. Special Forces were dispatched on a secret mission to help Afghan commandos recapture it. Under-resourced and unprepared, the soldiers found themselves in the midst of a pitched battle with conflicting orders. The story of how it led to one of the U.S. military’s worst disasters in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s wars.
Major Michael Hutchinson, a Green Beret with the 3rd Special Forces Group, was in charge of the secret operation to help Afghan commandos recapture Kunduz. It was his fifth combat deployment, counting three tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, yet he had never experienced such intense fighting.
The mission had been scrambled together after Kunduz had come under attack four days earlier. The Afghan army and police, plagued by corruption and poor leadership, had abandoned their posts and left the city to the Taliban with barely a fight. It fell within hours.
Hutch, as the other soldiers called him, worried that the slightest mistake or miscalculation could end in disaster. The Green Berets had reached the area by air and lacked armored vehicles. Some had driven into Kunduz on quad bikes. They had a single map between them, and no one had set foot in the city before.
After four days of fighting, they were still hunkered down at the city’s police headquarters, where the American and Afghan teams had set up a command center. That wasn’t the original plan: They were supposed to have established a foothold at the governor’s office, but got lost in the dark. They were under attack from all sides, and only air strikes and the snipers on the walls were preventing the Taliban from overrunning the base.
Hutchinson was in contact with an AC-130 gunship, which was circling overhead, to provide air support to his Afghan colleagues who were preparing to hit a building believed to be a Taliban command and control center.
The Afghans didn’t have radios, though, and were relying on limited cellphone coverage to make contact with Hutchinson. Communications were patchy, but this process had become routine. After hearing gunfire erupt, Hutchinson’s interpreter was able to reach them and confirm they needed air support for the building they were attacking. Hutchinson ordered the gunship to fire.
A series of technical and communication failures aboard the aircraft had prevented the crew from preparing for the mission. It didn’t help that Hutchinson’s team had run out of the batteries needed for the video receivers typically used to communicate with the aircrew.
That meant he didn’t know that things had gone seriously wrong. The building he had ordered the AC-130 gunship to strike was not a Taliban control center, but a trauma hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières.
There, Evangeline Cua was in between surgeries. She had her own practice in the Philippines, her home country, but had taken a break to work for the aid group over the summer. It had been an intense several months, but nothing compared with the past four days. The hospital had been flooded with patients since the city had fallen, and health-care workers were using hallways and offices to create space for makeshift beds. Her heart broke when entire families came in, and she couldn’t save them all.
The first rounds from the AC-130 struck the hospital’s emergency room. The operating theaters shook and the windows rattled. Cua looked up and exchanged glances with an assistant surgeon who had finished suturing a patient’s wound. The doctors had grown used to the sounds of explosions and gunfire. They laughed uneasily. It was probably just another clash, she thought, exhausted.
But then a second blast struck with terrifying force. All three theaters were in use when it hit. The surgeons leapt up and fled down the hallway, leaving their anesthetized patients on the operating tables. The doctors and nurses gathered across the hall, dragging tables together for cover, but it was too hard to breathe through the acrid smoke, so Cua groped her way back to the operating theater.
Her mind raced to understand what was happening. The hospital was supposed to be protected. All sides had recognized its impartiality. An air strike? Why? Another deafening blast shook the building, and the ceiling came crashing down, plunging them into darkness. She saw her patient’s heart monitor flatline. We’re going to die, she thought. Rounds hammered the building.
She imagined her remains being delivered to her parents in the Philippines in an urn. Or worse, what if her body was never found? She tried to focus on the patients’ lives she had saved during her time in Kunduz, but all she could think of were her parents. I’m sorry, Mom, she thought. I’m sorry. Nearby, she heard her colleague praying softly. “Pray with me,” he told her.
MSF’s country director, Guilhem Molinie, was in Kabul when he received a call from the hospital reporting the air strike. He immediately dialed Bagram Airfield, praying for a quick response. He felt sick to his stomach.
“The trauma center is under attack,” Molinie told the U.S. officer who picked up. “You’re bombing the hospital!”
The officer ran to the joint-operations center, pulled the battle captain aside, and told him about the call in a whisper. But Lieutenant Colonel Jason Johnston, the 3rd Group battalion commander, who was sitting in the next row, heard and leapt up. He asked the officer to repeat himself. None of them was aware the air strike was under way.
They tried reaching Hutchinson, but couldn’t get through for several minutes. They identified a plume of smoke rising from the center of Kunduz over a video feed and pulled the coordinates to check them against the ones provided by the hospital. When Hutchinson called back, Johnston told him about the report. Hutchinson stopped to process the message. He replayed the past hour and didn’t see how it could have happened.
“No way,” he said. “That’s not possible.”
Hutchinson ordered the aircraft to stop shooting, but didn’t mention the report to anyone else. As hardened as the other Green Berets were, it would deliver a terrible blow to morale, adding to the stress of the ongoing battle for the city. He told himself there must have been a mistake.
But in the first morning light, the destroyed hospital building was smoldering. Cua and the other doctors and nurses who survived the bombing set to work trying to save the wounded as the sun came up. In the end, 42 people, including 14 staff members, would be reported killed in the strike.
After a week-long battle, Kunduz was more or less back under government control. Afghan soldiers cheered as the Americans drove past. Hutchinson hadn’t heard anything more about the air strike and, because he and his team had not visited the site of the blast, assumed the report was a mistake.
Hutchinson was elated. This was what he had secretly dreamed of since childhood: participating in a battle for survival with a small band of brothers. Every emotion he had suppressed during the battle hit him at once. His men were high with the feeling of being alive. They felt like heroes in a movie. They had saved a city from ruin against the odds. They weren’t prepared for the news.
On TV back at the camp, the world’s attention was indeed focused on Kunduz—but not on the Taliban’s defeat. Every major outlet was covering the U.S. bombing of the hospital, and asking whether the air strike was a war crime.
Hutchinson still believed he and his men had done the right thing by going into the city, and tried to console Ben Vontz, the young Green Beret responsible for communicating with the gunship that night, who was distraught. If the mission had failed, the Taliban would be entrenched in Kunduz by now, he told Vontz, and a door‑to‑door battle to drive them out would have yielded an even higher human cost.
It had been 10 years since Hutchinson’s first tour in Iraq. A decade was a long time to learn how to process the horrors of war. To him, it was clear the bombing was a mistake caused by equipment failure, exhaustion, and human error. Everyone had done their best in a situation they should never have been put in, he told Vontz. The combat controller was 25, and it had been his first time in battle. He was inconsolable.
By this point, an investigation team had reached Kunduz; they wanted to see Hutchinson immediately. The investigators stared at him uncomfortably. The media were describing Hutchinson as a potential war criminal. He refused to flinch and promised to help with the inquiry.
Hutch called home. His wife answered.
“Is everything okay?” Tina asked. “Because they’re calling it a war crime.”
Hutchinson was relieved of his duties and sent to Bagram Airfield to await the results of the inquiry. He felt confident that the investigating officers would realize the soldiers had done their best. The strike was an unfortunate mistake made in the heat of battle. He planned to bravely accept whatever punishment the military saw fit to administer and move on.
When a chaplain visited from Kabul, he was shocked to find Hutchinson in good spirits. He had been assessed to be a suicide risk. “I’m fine,” Hutchinson told him, trying to sound upbeat.
But he had started to hear that some in the Army’s headquarters believed he had violated the rules of engagement and wanted him to stand trial for murder. He tried to stay positive and kept to his gym routine to fight off the depression and negative thoughts nagging at him.
He couldn’t tell Tina much over the phone, but he tried to reassure her that everything would be fine once the investigation had run its course. She was on her own, pregnant and juggling two kids.
Tina knew not to ask questions, but she was scared about what was going to happen to them. “I’m not going to jail,” he promised her. She was worried. The images from the hospital were etched on her mind. She couldn’t help but read the stories about the staff and patients who had survived, even if in her heart she knew that her husband had done his best.
The military changed its official story several times. The secrecy surrounding the investigation fueled the public’s worst suspicions, that the hospital had been struck on purpose. Hutchinson felt that people would understand if they heard firsthand how the mistake had occurred. He asked to be allowed to explain publicly what had happened. The battalion told him it wasn’t a good idea.
The investigators called Hutchinson in for questioning over and over again. Eventually, the investigating officer, Brigadier General Richard Kim, approached him. He didn’t believe Hutchinson’s version of events, he said. He thought that Hutchinson had broken the rules of engagement and illegally used pre-assault fire. “Would you like to change your story?” he asked.
Hutchinson was shocked. He could accept having made a mistake and that civilians had died as a result. He could accept that the tragedy was preventable. He was prepared to accept whatever punishment was meted out. But to be accused of trying to cover up a deliberate act? That was too much. It couldn’t be real.
This post was excerpted from Donati’s upcoming book, Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War.
* This article previously misstated the length of the Afghan War. It has lasted 20 years, not 21.