American Airstrikes Hit Afghan Hospital, Killing At Least Nineteen
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.