– Photo: In this photograph released by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International on October 3, 2015, Afghan MSF surgeons work in an undamaged part of the MSF hospital in Kunduz after the operating theaters were destroyed in an airstrike.
US special operations forces – not their Afghan allies – called in the deadly airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, the US commander has conceded.
Shortly before General John Campbell, the commander of the US and NATO War in Afghanistan, testified to a Senate panel, the president of Doctors Without Borders – also known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International – said the US and Afghanistan had made an “admission of a war crime.”
The airstrike in northern Afghanistan has killed 22 people, including three children, at a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders. The airstrike on the hospital is among the worst and most visible cases of civilian deaths caused by US forces during the 14-year Afghanistan war that Barack Obama has declared “all but over.” It killed 12 MSF staff and 10 patients, who had sought medical treatment after the Taliban overran Kunduz last weekend. Three children died in the airstrike that came in multiple waves and burned patients alive in their beds.
The medical group described as bombing that continued for more than “30 minutes after American and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington were first informed” of the airstrikes.
The U.S. military acknowledged it conducted a pre-dawn airstrike in the vicinity of an MSF medical facility. A spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan said a U.S. airstrike “resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.”
Shifting the US account of the Saturday morning airstrike for the fourth time in as many days, Campbell reiterated that “Afghan forces had requested US air cover after being engaged in a “tenacious fight” to retake the northern city of Kunduz from the Taliban.” But, modifying the account he gave at a press conference on Monday, Campbell said those Afghan forces had not directly communicated with the US pilots of an AC-130 gunship overhead.
On Tuesday, MSF denounced Campbell’s press conference as an attempt to shift blame to the Afghans.
Campbell did not explain whether the procedures to launch the airstrike took into account the GPS coordinates of the MSF field hospital, which its president, Joanne Liu, said were “regularly shared” with US, coalition and Afghan military officers and civilian officials, “as recently as Tuesday 29 September.”
AC-130 Gunship, which fly low, typically rely on a pilot visually identifying a target.
Campbell instead said the hospital was “mistakenly struck” by US forces.
“We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility,” Campbell told US lawmakers, declaring that he wanted an investigation by his command to “take its course” instead of providing further detail.
But Jason Cone, Doctors Without Borders’ US executive director, said Campbell’s shifting story underscored the need for an independent inquiry.
“Today’s statement from General Campbell is just the latest in a long list of confusing accounts from the US military about what happened in Kunduz on Saturday,” Cone said.
“They are now back to talking about a ‘mistake.’ A mistake that lasted for more than an hour, despite the fact that the location of the hospital was well known to them and that they were informed during the airstrike that it was a hospital being hit. All this confusion just underlines once again the crucial need for an independent investigation into how a major hospital, full of patients and MSF staff, could be repeatedly bombed.”
Campbell suggested but did not say that the Afghans were taking fire from the Taliban from within the hospital grounds, a claim the Afghan government has explicitly made. MSF unequivocally denies that the hospital was a source of fire. It has also noted the precision of the strike that hit only the main hospital building and not its adjuncts.
Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of international law at the University of Notre Dame, said that according to international humanitarian law, the critical question for determining if US forces committed a war crime was whether they had notified the hospital ahead of the strike if they understood the Taliban to be firing from the hospital.
“Any serious violation of the law of armed conflict, such as attacking a hospital that is immune from intentional attack, is a war crime. Hospitals are immune from attack during an armed conflict unless being used by one party to harm the other and then only after a warning that it will be attacked,” O’Connell said.
The US account has now shifted four times in four days. On Saturday, the US military said it did not know for certain that it had struck the hospital but that US forces were taking fire in Kunduz.
On Sunday, it said that the strike took place in the “vicinity” of the hospital and suggested it had been “accidentally” struck. On Monday, Campbell said that the Afghans requested the strike and said US forces in the area were not “threatened.”
However, in a recent statement, a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied presence of its fighters in the area.
Doctors Without Borders has demanded an independent inquiry, rejecting the three current investigations – by the US-NATO and the Afghans – as compromised by their partiality.
“This attack cannot be brushed aside as a mere mistake or an inevitable consequence of war. Statements from the Afghanistan government have claimed that Taliban forces were using the hospital to fire on coalition forces. These statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital, which amounts to an admission of a war crime,” Liu said on Tuesday.
In the past, the US has upbraided both allies and adversaries over the indiscriminate use of aerial strikes.
On Thursday, defense secretary Ashton Carter said Russia was pouring “gasoline on the fire” of the Syrian civil war after it launched a campaign of airstrikes against opponents of Moscow’s ally Bashar al-Assad.
A day later, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the White House was “deeply concerned” that its Saudi ally in the Yemen conflict had bombed a wedding party, something the US itself did in Yemen in 2013.
When Israel shelled a UN school in Gaza housing thousands of displaced Palestinians in August 2014, a State Department spokesman said the US was “appalled” by the “disgraceful” attack.
Addressing Tuesday’s committee hearing, Campbell confirmed that he has recommended to Obama that the US retain thousands of troops in Afghanistan beyond Obama’s presidency – reversing a plan to reduce the force to one focused on protecting the US embassy in Kabul.
He argued for “strategic patience” in the longest war in US history, which has now stretched five years longer than the failed Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter offered his “thoughts and prayers to everyone affected” in a statement Saturday. “A full investigation into the tragic incident is underway in coordination with the Afghan government.”
General John F. Campbell promised in a statement to “thoroughly examine the incident and determine what happened.” He said U.S. forces in the country would “continue to advise and assist” the Afghan partners as “they clear the city of Kunduz and surrounding areas of insurgents.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a statement issued in Kabul, expressed his “deep sorrow” over the killing and wounding of civilians. The statement also said Campbell, in a telephone call to Ghani, had provided explanations about the incident and offered condolences to those affected.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Afghanistan strongly condemned the attack, saying that from its perspective, “targeting of any medical facility or personnel working in health care is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances.” A spokesperson for the committee said that ICRC was “very shocked, very saddened, by this tragic news.”
Some of the strongest condemnation came from the United Nations. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called the airstrike “inexcusable.”
Zeid said, “International and Afghan military planners have an obligation to respect and protect civilians at all times, and medical facilities and personnel are the object of a special protection.”
He said that “if established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime.”
– Photo: In this undated photograph released by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on October 3, 2015, Afghan MSF medical personnel treat civilians injured following an offensive against Taliban militants by Afghan and coalition forces at the MSF hospital in Kunduz.
Earlier, Doctors Without Borders said in a statement that “MSF condemns in the strongest possible terms the horrific bombing of its hospital in Kunduz full of staff and patients.” It added that all parties, including Kabul and Washington, were clearly informed of the precise location (GPS coordinates) of the MSF facilities in Kunduz,” including the hospital’s location after fighting broke out in the city.
“MSF urgently seeks clarity on exactly what took place and how this terrible event could have happened,” the statement said. The group said that when the bombing occurred, there were about 105 patients and their caretakers in the hospital, and more than 80 foreign and local MSF staff present there.
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- Ghani: Afghan Forces Retake Kunduz From Taliban
- Militias Join US, Afghan Forces to Try to Retake Kunduz From Taliban