The Aftermath of a Deadly Airstrike in Afghanistan

Air planeTwo things are known for certain about the deadly American airstrike on the hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, run by Doctors Without Borders. One is that the attack killed 22 people, including 12 staff members. The other is that an initial Pentagon statement saying the strike may have caused “collateral damage” was outrageous and dehumanizing.

Beyond that, there are many unanswered questions and much confusion about how the hospital, a major health care facility in Afghanistan’s northeastern region, came to be a target.

Gen. John Campbell, who commands American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged at a news conference on Monday that the airstrike by an American gunship on Saturday had “accidentally struck” civilians and promised a thorough investigation. That is not sufficient. In addition, an independent panel should quickly be empowered to obtain all the information needed to produce a credible conclusion about what went so horribly wrong.

General Campbell said that Afghan forces, fighting to retake Kunduz from the Taliban, had come under fire near the hospital and called the Americans for help, which led to the bombing. He admitted this contradicted initial reports that suggested that American forces were threatened and the airstrike was called on their behalf, prompting him on Saturday to describe the strike as “justified.

There are serious problems with these explanations. Officials with Doctors Without Borders said that all parties to the conflict, including in Washington and Kabul, were explicitly informed in advance of the hospital’s GPS coordinates. Once the bombing started, the group contacted the American and Afghan authorities, but it took 30 minutes before the bombing was halted, the group said.

Adding to the confusion is the question of whether there had been fighting around the hospital at all. According to The Times’s Alissa Rubin, a Kunduz police spokesman, Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, said Taliban fighters entered the hospital and were using it as a firing position. The hospital treated the wounded from all sides of the conflict, a policy that has long irked Afghan security forces. But three hospital employees — an aide who was wounded in the bombing and two nurses who emerged unscathed — said that there had been no fighting in the hospital’s immediate vicinity and no Taliban fighters in the hospital. Arjan Hehenkamp, director of Doctors Without Borders in the Netherlands, also denied that Taliban fighters had been in the hospital, saying in a Twitter post that only staff, patients and caretakers had been inside.

Under international humanitarian law, it can be a war crime to deliberately strike a hospital, and General Campbell insisted, “we do not strike those kind of targets, absolutely.” But something clearly went wrong in this case.

Did the Afghan forces, who on Monday seemed to be making progress in retaking Kunduz from the Taliban, make an error about the Taliban firing from the hospital? What role did the American Special Operations forces, who are on the ground training and assisting the Afghans, play? Why didn’t the American pilot see the hospital and check the target against a list of protected sites before firing?

It is impossible to avoid all civilian deaths in a war, especially when the fighting is in heavily populated cities, as in Kunduz. Over the years, the vast majority of civilian deaths have been at the hands of the Taliban, but the American forces have made deadly mistakes. Whenever that happens, American military commanders have promised to hone the rules of engagement to minimize the risks. General Campbell repeated that pledge on Monday. He needs to urgently re-examine the issue.(New York Times)

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