Kunduz airstrike: war crime or a fatal mistake?

JEAN GERMANO ’18
CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Over the course of the previous week one of the biggest headlines about events in the “Middle Eastern” news region was surprisingly not tied to ISIS cruelty, Russian interventions, or Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
Instead, the focus was on Kunduz, Afghanistan. The city fell to Taliban forces and became a battleground, as defending Afghan troops were forced back to enclaves throughout the city. Then, a counteroffensive backed by firepower from NATO’s Resolute Support Mission (RSM) helped retake the city.
During the battle a Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, hospital was wracked by explosions from 2-3 AM on October third, that severely damaged buildings and started fires.
Afghan Security forces retook Kunduz, but amongst the casualties were twenty-two dead and thirty-seven wounded patients, doctors, and staff from the MSF’s Kunduz facility.
Within a few days, MSF was calling for an investigation by the Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC). MSF then escalated their position, saying that they were working under the assumption that U.S. forces committed a war crime. The Pentagon acknowledging the airstrike did not alleviate the situation, as MSF president Joanne Liu accused U.S. and Afghan forces of “working together” to destroy the hospital.
Since the airstrike, the 24/7 news cycle has gone into overdrive, as the story evolved with a chain of conflicting and evolving reports coming from both official and unofficial sources. As an explaination, the Pentagon initially stated on the third that airstrikes had been conducted near the hospital and those “may” have inflicted damage to a nearby “medical facility.”
Kunduz’s acting governor, Hamdullah Danishi, issued a statement the next day saying that the hospital’s large garden was used by Taliban who fired on advancing Afghan forces with small arms and rockets that were “tolerated” for some time before returning fire.
MSF responded that there had never been Taliban inside of the hospital compound. In the meantime, the Pentagon acknowledged that U.S. troops were under attack near the hospital and confirmed that it was fighter aircrafts that conducted the airstrikes.
Presently, RSM commander, General Campbell, has settled on a narrative in which Afghan forces made an airstrike request routed to a U.S. Special Forces unit that did not have a “visual” on the “target.” The unit’s request for fire somehow did not go through the usual auditing procedures before an approval that allowed a C-130 gunship to open fire on the hospital. The Pentagon has acknowledged that the strike was a mistake that led to a regrettabe loss of life, and has offered to rebuild the hospital and pay “condolence” to its victims.
As it stands, there is no path to a final resolution of what happened in Kunduz. The U.S. military has firmly established a chain of events and will conduct a deeper investigation, for better or for worse by NATO over the course of several months.
The Afghan government has also maintained that its forces marked the airstrike “target” and requested the strike to deal with incoming enemy fire. MSF insists there were no Taliban in their facility and that they had repeatedly sent GPS coordinates of their hospital to combatants who should have been aware of the hospital’s presence.
MSF’s war crime accusation is built on Geneva Convention protections of medical personnel and protocols concerning proportionality in attack. This accusation is filled with loopholes unless a demonstrated intent to purposely destroy the entire hospital compound can be proven.
And, even if the requested independent investigation by the IHFFC were approved by the conflicting parties (highly unlikely), the commission report is ultimately of dubious value, as the agency has never been tested by an actual investigation in its 24 year history. If it finds anything disagreeable to the report, its public release can be prohibited.

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