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American Airstrikes Hit Afghan Hospital, Killing At Least Nineteen

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American airstrikes apparently intended to assist the Afghan Army in the ongoing battle to retake Kunduz hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the city, killing at least nineteen people and wounding dozens:

KABUL, Afghanistan — A hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz was badly damaged early Saturday after being hit by what appears to have been an American airstrike, At least 19 people were killed, including 12 hospital staff members, and dozens wounded.

The United States military, in a statement, confirmed an airstrike at 2:15 a.m., saying that it had been targeting individuals “who were threatening the force” and that “there may have been collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.”

The airstrike set off fires that were still burning hours later, and a nurse who managed to climb out of the debris described seeing medical colleagues so badly burned that they died.

“A few are still missing, they might have been buried in the rubble,” he said, declining to give his name because employees of Doctors Without Borders are not allowed to speak to reporters without authorization.

President Ashraf Ghani’s office released a statement Saturday evening saying that Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, had apologized for the strike. In a statement, however, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said only that a “full investigation into the tragic incident” was underway.

Airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties have caused tensions verging on hostility between the Afghan government and the United States for years. The former president, Hamid Karzai, was often in the uncomfortable position of explaining to his countrymen why Afghanistan’s biggest ally was killing innocent Afghans.

Mr. Ghani has been largely spared such confrontations since taking power last year. Although the United States military has kept up a steady stream of airstrikes, it has mostly targeted small groups and there have been far fewer mistakes.

The strike on the hospital Saturday came as the United States, for the first time since it began withdrawing most of its soldiers from Afghanistan, has begun to play a sustained and active role in the fight there. It is trying to support Afghan troops overwhelmed by the Taliban in the northern province of Kunduz.

The Taliban took the control of the city on Monday and despite sporadic but often intense fighting over the last three days, their white flag is still flying over the main square of the city.

Accounts differed as to whether there had been fighting around the hospital that might have precipitated the strike. Two hospital employees, an aide who was wounded in the bombing and a nurse who emerged unscathed, said that there had been no active fighting nearby and no Taliban fighters inside the hospital.

But a Kunduz police spokesman, Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, insisted that Taliban fighters had 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 the Afghan security forces.

Video posted Saturday morning of the hospital grounds showed fires still burning, blackened walls, and, in one building, a collapsed ceiling. One side of one building appeared to be pockmarked by bullets or possibly shrapnel, suggesting that there could have been fighting there. But it was impossible to tell whether the marks were new or not.

Doctors Without Borders, which has released the casualty numbers, said 37 people were wounded of whom 19 were hospital staff and 18 were patients or their caregivers, which means mostly family members. The organization described the facility as “very badly damaged.”

In a statement, the aid group accused the American military of continuing the bombing for 30 minutes after receiving phone calls telling military contacts that the hospital was being bombed.

“All parties to the conflict including in Kabul and Washington, were clearly informed of the precise location [GPS Coordinates] of the MSF facilities — hospital, guesthouse, office,” the statement said. “MSF urgently seeks clarity on exactly what took place and how this terrible event could have happened,” the group added.

A military spokeswoman in Kabul, Susan Harrington, said that because the investigation was ongoing it was not possible to comment.

Off the top, it’s hard to believe that American military forces deliberately targeted a hospital whose position they were apparently already aware of. The United States has made many mistakes during the course of the war in Afghanistan, but we’ve never seen anything quite as egregious at that. The more likely explanation is either that there was a targeting error somewhere along the way, or that they United States was given faulty information, either deliberately or otherwise, by Afghan forces on the ground. As noted in the article above, the Afghans have apparently never been too thrilled with the idea that groups like Doctors Without Borders treat people without regard to their allegiance in the war, so the fact that they might not care to be too accurate about whether the “Taliban” they see near the hospital are people engaged in combat, people seeking treatment, or simply civilians caught in the crossfire. It is troublesome, though, that the bombing of the hospital continued for some thirty minutes after DWB says that they informed American and Afghan military forces that the hospital was being hit. This would seem to be either an example of an egregious communications failure or simply callous disregard. In either case, it would seem that the calls that have already been made for an investigation of this incident are certainly called for.

The sad irony of this incident is that it comes just days, if not hours, after President Obama condemned Russia for its attacks in Syria against anti-Assad rebels. It also comes just days after yet another report about the extent to which the mostly under-reported Saudi Arabian war in Yemen has resulted in death and misery among the civilian population. It also coincides with this weeks news about the fall of Kunduz to a vastly inferior Taliban force and the fact that American air power is so heavily involved in the fight to retake the city would seem to indicate that, at least for now, the fight isn’t going very well. Where the coherent policy on all of this escapes me.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    We need increases to the defense budget for construction of more weapons designed to inflict maximum damage against Soviet forces. At least another trillion for F-35s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  2. edmondo says:

    So one Noble Peace Prize winner just dropped bombs on another group of Noble Peace Prize winner. The selection committee must be ruing that choice, huh?

    Isn’t it ironic that the first Noble Peace Prize winner was talking about “senseless violence” just yesterday?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4

  3. Davebo says:

    Off the top, it’s hard to believe that American military forces deliberately targeted a hospital whose position they were apparently already aware of. The United States has made many mistakes during the course of the war in Afghanistan, but we’ve never seen anything quite as egregious at that. The more likely explanation is either that there was a targeting error somewhere along the way, or that they United States was given faulty information, either deliberately or otherwise, by Afghan forces on the ground. As noted in the article above, the Afghans have apparently never been too thrilled with the idea that groups like Doctors Without Borders treat people without regard to their allegiance in the war, so the fact that they might not care to be too accurate about whether the “Taliban” they see near the hospital are people

    And U.S. SF on the ground went along?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. walt moffett says:

    The only coherent strategy seems to be holding on tight while riding the tiger.

    Would rather wait for the inevitable investigation and court martials than speculate on how and why this happened.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  5. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @walt moffett: I agree. Somebody is going to get thrown under the bus on this one.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. Ben Wolf says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: We exclusively build weapons designed to attack strategic positions and conventional enemy formations in the open field. Our planes move too fast and drop bombs too big to target a Taliban position in a city without causing major collateral damage. You can’t effectively use things made to blow up the Red Army against an insurgency which one would think we’d have learned by now but it appears weapon systems designed to fight this enemy aren’t expensive enough to line the pockets of the defense industry.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. walt moffett says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    Interestingly, the AP reports seeing automatic weapons on window sills at the clinic. However, one does not embarrass the boss without consequences,

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  8. michael reynolds says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Actually, our predisposition is to blow up objects: trucks, tanks, buildings, radar installations, anti-aircraft missiles. Yes, in part because of the Cold War, but also because of a deep-seated prejudice that grew out of WW2. We won WW2 by building more stuff more quickly than our enemies. Our military are great believers in stuff.

    We are just starting to see some people say, Hey, wait a minute, maybe our military isn’t the best in the world at training 14th century tribespeople.” WaPo has a column on it today:

    Seen through a narrow lens, this failure illustrates how difficult progress against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State will be without putting U.S. boots on the ground. Viewed more broadly, however, these Centcom revelations show fundamental defects in the idea that we can graft U.S. capabilities onto foreign forces to achieve our ends.

    We field well-trained, brave, capable troops. But that’s not how we have ever won wars. We were not braver than the Japanese, and we were not better-trained than the Wehrmacht, but we had staggering mountains of steel to simply bury them in. An endless supply of bombers, tanks, ships, cannon, planes – sometimes of a markedly superior quality (planes) and where we were inferior (tanks) we could still prevail by sheer weight of numbers.

    Every war we’ve won since the Mexican war has been by virtue of money, technology and materiel. That’s how the north beat the south, it’s how we discouraged the Germans in WW1, how we contributed to beating Germany and beat Japan, it’s how we outlasted the Soviets to win the Cold War and of course its how we swept aside Saddam’s army in Gulf War 1.

    Where we are unable to apply the weight of our stuff and money we lose: the early part of Korea, Vietnam, and now, Afghanistan.

    This is a serious problem for the United States. We are fighting wars where the priorities are 1) Suffer no casualties, 2) Kill no innocents, 3) Outrage no allies, 4) Prevail. And that is insane.

    Hypothetical: 100 guys on one side, 10 guys on the other. Who wants the fight to take place in a stairwell? The 10 guys do, because a fight on a stairwell is not 100 vs 10 but one vs. one. That’s how we cripple ourselves with ‘proportional response’ and all our clever ‘counterinsurgency’ and the rest. Limited warfare does not work for us because it deprives us of the use of our stuff, and the US military is all about stuff.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    We need to get the hell out of the middle east. If the Russians want to pick up the slack let them, it will once again be their downfall. The Chinese want to exploit Afghan resources -let them attempt to stabilize the country which will make that possible. Apparently Israel and Russia are talking. Israel has never been an ally but a pain in the a$$ client state. If Russia want’s to take on that responsibility let them but cut off the billions of dollars we give to Israel every year..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  10. Sherparick says:

    @Ben Wolf: Reading the NY Times and Reuters reports indicates that “bombs” may have been 105mm shell from an AC-130 Gunship that was doing close air support for the Special Op forces. As the point is often made, the U.S. should be reluctant about blasting Russia and Syria about bombing civilians. We can say that we do it “by accident” and they are doing it deliberately, but the casualties are pretty much the same.

    Let’s what is our strategy? Well, the strategy in an long guerrilla war is to see which side wears down first. Usually it is the foreigner, although the U.S. has adopted a counter-strategy air and special ops warfare which it can apparently sustain indefinitely despite the unhappiness of a few hippies and the occasional bad publicity of a “mistake.” Hopefully, at some point, the Taliban leaders, the U.S., and the anti-Taliban Afghans will sit down and negotiate a settlement after everyone realizes they can’t win and the war will go on indefinitely if not brought to the end by a negotiated settlement. Right now the Taliban thinks they are winning so why talk. From the U.S. interest the current chaos is better than Afghanistan and the Northeastern Pakistan become bases once again for launching and training for terrorist attacks on the U.S. and Europe. Much like Syria and Iraq, it remains both a magnet for young, discontented, Muslim men (for the most part), and as long as the fight continues a killing ground of these true believers. It should be remembered that militant Islam did not start going after Western targets till after the Soviet-Afghan war came to its final end in 1988-92 period (for instance, Somalia intervention turned into a guerrilla war in 1993 as native warlords started being supported by Arab Wahabis in Saudi Arabia such as Bin Laden). If it looks like they won, and there is place for them to go to fight more war, they will be free to plan and execute guerrilla war in Western countries themselves.

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  11. Jenos Idanian says:

    When do the war crimes investigations start?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1