The official story from the Afghan government and US military about the attack on the Kunduz hospital run by the international medical aid agency, Doctors Without Borders. At a press conference in Washington, DC early today General John Campbell, the American commander of international forces in Afghanistan, changed the original story about US forces requesting the air strike and “may have resulted in collateral damage.” He is now states that US forces were not under fire and that it was the Afghan forces who requested the air strike.
Campbell said that Afghan troops were under direct fire and “called in for fire to support them.” He acknowledged that initial statements from the coalition indicated that U.S. Special Forces were under direct fire, but that was not the case and he is “correcting that statement here.”
He said that U.S. Special Forces were in the area, just not under direct fire.
Campbell declined to answer whether the rules of engagement allow for the Afghans to call in American airstrikes and what kind of fall back or fail-safe system is in place.
Military officials told NBC News over the weekend that Afghans cannot call in airstrikes – that they do not have the training. However, they can report to the U.S. and coalition that they are under fire from a location and the U.S. or coalition partners there can call it in. Officials said the U.S. would not strike without target verification first.
It isn’t clear how the Afghans asked for air support, but Campbell seemed to suggest both of those policies were violated.
As Glenn Greenwald notes, this story is radically changing:
This obfuscation tactic is the standard one the U.S. and Israel both use whenever they blow up civilian structures and slaughter large numbers of innocent people with airstrikes. Citizens of both countries are well-trained – like some tough, war-weary, cigar-chomping general – to reflexively spout the phrase “collateral damage,” which lets them forget about the whole thing and sleep soundly, telling themselves that these sorts of innocent little mistakes are inevitable even among the noblest and most well-intentioned war-fighters, such as their own governments. The phrase itself is beautifully technocratic: it requires no awareness of how many lives get extinguished, let alone acceptance of culpability. Just invoke that phrase and throw enough doubt on what happened in the first 48 hours and the media will quickly lose interest.
But there’s something significantly different about this incident that has caused this “mistake” claim to fail. Usually, the only voices protesting or challenging the claims of the U.S. military are the foreign, non-western victims who live in the cities and villages where the bombs fall. Those are easily ignored, or dismissed as either ignorant or dishonest. Those voices barely find their way into U.S. news stories, and when they do, they are stream-rolled by the official and/or anonymous claims of the U.S. military, which are typically treated by U.S. media outlets as unassailable authority.
In this case, though, the U.S. military bombed the hospital of an organization – Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)) – run by western-based physicians and other medical care professionals. They are not so easily ignored. Doctors who travel to dangerous war zones to treat injured human beings are regarded as noble and trustworthy. They’re difficult to marginalize and demonize. They give compelling, articulate interviews in English to U.S. media outlets. They are heard, and listened to.
MSF has used this platform, unapologetically and aggressively. They are clearly infuriated at the attack on their hospital and the deaths of their colleagues and patients. From the start, they have signaled an unwillingness to be shunted away with the usual “collateral damage” banalities and, more important, have refused to let the U.S. military and its allies get away with spouting obvious falsehoods. They want real answers. As the Guardian‘s Spencer Ackerman put it last night: “MSF’s been going incredibly hard, challenging every US/Afgh claim made about hospital bombing.”
In particular, MSF quickly publicized numerous facts that cast serious doubt on the original U.S. claim that the strike on the hospital was just an accident. To begin with, the organization had repeatedly advised the U.S. military of the exact GPS coordinates of the hospital. They did so most recently on September 29, just five days before the strike. Beyond that, MSF personnel at the facility “frantically” called U.S. military officials during the strike to advise them that the hospital was being hit and to plead with them to stop, but the strikes continued in a “sustained” manner for 30 more minutes. [..]
All of these facts make it extremely difficult – even for U.S. media outlets – to sell the “accident” story. At least as likely is that the hospital was deliberately targeted, chosen either by Afghan military officials who fed the coordinates to their U.S. military allies and/or by the U.S. military itself.
Even cynical critics of the U.S. have a hard time believing that the U.S. military would deliberately target a hospital with an airstrike (despite how many times the U.S. has destroyed hospitals with airstrikes). But in this case, there is long-standing tension between the Afghan military and this specific MSF hospital, grounded in the fact that the MSF – true to its name – treats all wounded human beings without first determining on which side they fight. That they provide medical treatment to wounded civilians and Taliban fighters alike has made them a target before.
In July – just 3 months ago – Reuters reported that Afghan special forces “raided” this exact MSF hospital in Kunduz, claiming an Al Qaeda member was a patient. [..]
News accounts of this weekend’s U.S. airstrike on that same hospital hinted cryptically at the hostility from the Afghan military. The first NYT story on the strike – while obscuring who carried out the strike – noted deep into the article that “the hospital treated the wounded from all sides of the conflict, a policy that has long irked Afghan security forces.” Al Jazeera similarly alluded to this tension, noting that “a caretaker at the hospital, who was severely injured in the air strike, told Al Jazeera that clinic’s medical staff did not favour any side of the conflict. ‘We are here to help and treat civilians,’ Abdul Manar said.”
As a result of all of this, there is now a radical shift in the story being told about this strike. No longer is it being depicted as some terrible accident of a wayward bomb. Instead, the predominant narrative from U.S. sources and their Afghan allies is that this attack was justified because the Taliban were using it as a “base.” [..]
The New York Times today – in a story ostensibly about the impact on area residents from the hospital’s destruction – printed paragraphs from anonymous officials justifying this strike: “there was heavy gunfire in the area around the hospital at the time of the airstrike, and that initial reports indicated that the Americans and Afghans on the ground near the hospital could not safely pull back without being dangerously exposed. American forces on the ground then called for air support, senior officials said.” It also claimed that “many residents of Kunduz, as well as people in Kabul, seemed willing to believe the accusations of some Afghan officials that there were Taliban fighters in the hospital shooting at American troops.” And this:
Still, some Afghan officials continued to suggest that the attack was justified. “I know that there were civilian casualties in the hospital, but a lot of senior Taliban were also killed,” said Abdul Wadud Paiman, a member of Parliament from Kunduz.
So now we’re into full-on justification mode: yes, we did it; yes, we did it on purpose; and we’re not sorry because we were right to do so since we think some Taliban fighters were at the hospital, perhaps even shooting at us. In response to the emergence of this justification claim, MSF expressed the exact level of revulsion appropriate (emphasis added):
“MSF is disgusted by the recent statements coming from some Afghanistan government authorities justifying the attack on its hospital in Kunduz. These statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present.
“This amounts to an admission of a war crime. This utterly contradicts the initial attempts of the US government to minimize the attack as ‘collateral damage.’
“There can be no justification for this abhorrent attack on our hospital that resulted in the deaths of MSF staff as they worked and patients as they lay in their beds. MSF reiterates its demand for a full transparent and independent international investigation.”
Christopher Stokes, the Director General of MSF, issued this statement in response to these latest developments:
October 05, 2015
“Today the US government has admitted that it was their airstrike that hit our hospital in Kunduz and killed 22 patients and MSF staff. Their description of the attack keeps changing-from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government. The reality is the US dropped those bombs. The US hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The US military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the US and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical.”
Dr. Gino Strada, co-founder of Emergency, an Italian NGO that provides free medical care to victims of war, spoke to Democracy Now!‘s Amy Goodman.
Transcript can be read here.
As Glenn said, “the U.S. seems to have picked the wrong group this time to attack from the air.”
No apology is acceptable. Only punishing the individuals responsible for this war crime is.