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) – said the US and Afghanistanhad made an “admission of a war crime”.
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.
“Even though the Afghans request that support, it still has to go through a rigorous US procedure to enable fires to go on the ground. We had a special operations unit that was in close vicinity that was talking to the aircraft that delivered those fires,” Campbell told the Senate armed services committee on Tuesday morning.
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.
On Tuesday, MSF denounced Campbell’s press conference as an attempt to shift blame to the Afghans.
“The US military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition,” said its director general, Christopher Stokes.
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 gunships, which fly low, typically rely on a pilot visually identifying a target.
It is also unclear where the US special operations forces were relative to the fighting, but Campbell has said that US units were “not directly engaged in the fighting”.
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”.
On Tuesday, he clarified that US forces called in the airstrike themselves at Afghan request.
Meanwhile, the defense secretary, Ashton Carter, said in a statement on Tuesday, that the Department of Defense “deeply regrets the loss of innocent lives that resulted from this tragic event”.
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, the US defense secretary 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, the 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.