Sunday, October 11, 2015

More on Airstrike on MSF Hospital in Kunduz

Reports indicate that Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has moved its personnel from Kunduz City - closing down its medical facility. An unfortunate development as it is one of the few medical centers in that very large city. The MSF medical center was hit by a U.S. airstrike during the fight for Kunduz City last week (early October). The death toll is reported to be more than twenty medical staff and patients. MSF is calling the airstrike a war crime; others are regarding the incident as a tragic error in the fog of war. The White House called the MSF hospital airstrike a 'profound tragedy'. (Tolo News, Oct 6, 2015).

AC-130 Gunship (Photo AF Defense Media)
AC-130 Gunship. Although not confirmed by the Pentagon many observers are speculating that an Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunship conducted the airstrike. Some Pentagon reports say that the Afghan military called in the airstrike; that it was not conducted in support of U.S. troops in contact. The air attack lasted about one hour. A gunship does not always use or require a map coordinate to engage its target - it sometimes will be guided onto the target with a compass heading (direction) and distance provided by friendly force on the ground. The AC-130 almost always flies at night because of its slow speed, large size, and lower operating altitude. The U.S. military is having a difficult time explaining how it bombed the MSF hospital. (The Washington Post, Oct 5, 2015).

How Did it Happen? It seems that an Afghan army unit asked for air support because it was taking fire from the garden areas surrounding the hospital. A U.S. special operations element with the Afghan unit had some responsibility for the approving or execution of the air support mission. It is unknown if the AC-130 crew knew they were targeting a hospital. Some reports are saying that the SOF unit on the ground may not have followed proper procedure during the call for fire mission. One aspect coming to light is that the SOF unit may not have had "eyes on the target" - which may impede the ability to determine if the airstrike was hitting a legitimate target. Read more in "General Is Said to Think Afghan Hospital Airstrike Broke U.S. Rules", The New York Times, October 6, 2015. One of the more detailed examinations of the airstrike has been conducted by Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN). Read her report dated October 7, 2015 entitled "Airstrike on a Hospital in Kunduz: Claims of a war crime".

Screwup or War Crime? Under the Geneva Conventions (as if the Taliban observe that agreement) hospitals can't legally be deliberately targeted for a military attack except in cases where the enemy is using hospitals as cover. A big question is if the U.S. knew the building was a hospital and if it was intentionally targeted - one would hope no in both cases. However, the MSF is pressing the case for calling the attack a war crime. Read more in "Did the US bombing of an Afghan Hospital Cross the Line Between Screwup and War Crime?", Mother Jones, October 7, 2015. Of course, the Human Rights Watch is jumping all over this drastic event. (Human Rights Watch, October 6, 2015).

Who is to Blame? With the international attention generated by this tragedy it will be hard for the U.S. military to sweep this incident under the rug. Read more in "Will Heads Roll at the Pentagon for the MSF Hospital 'Mistake'?", Foreign Policy, October 8, 2015. One observer feels that too much attention to this one tragedy will set the stage for country-wide risk. Read Anthony H. Cordesman's thoughts in The Tragedy in Kunduz, the Real Threat to Afghan Civilians, and the Need for Changes in U.S. Strategy, Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), October 9, 2015.

Apologies. An incident this serious requires acknowledgement of mistakes and a thorough investigation. Fraser Seitel tells us what "A Proper Apology" entails (, Oct 9, 2015).

History of CIVCAS and "Unplanned Airstrikes". According to one observer there is a big difference in the incidents of civilian casualties when comparing "planned" and "unplanned" airstrikes. The incidents of civilian casualties in planned airstrikes are very small when compared to CIVCAS during unplanned airstrikes. Read "A Brief History of Unplanned Air Strikes in Afghanistan", by Matthew Gault, War is Boring, October 6, 2015.

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