Doctors Without Borders is a French founded NGO, also known as Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), that provides humanitarian aid on a charitable basis to civilians in war torn countries. Their policy has always been to treat anyone in bad health or in need of emergency services, and includes people from the various fighting organizations, even terrorist ones. Now the MSF takes their neutral stance very seriously, and they treat anyone in need as long as they leave their fighting status at the door, which has always justified a form of mistrust from U.S. and Afghan officials. Regardless, the MSF has always maintained that there has never been any type of terrorist activity in the hospital in Kunduz Afghanistan, a point that they have had to make before.
Last summer, on July 1st, Afghan Security forces raided the MSF compound looking for an Al Quida operative. The doctors on duty tried to stop the soldiers, requested that they disarm, and claimed that the person they sought wasn’t there, but the military teams forced their way in anyway and searched the facility. Witnesses say that they soldiers didn’t find who they were looking for and left but there are questions that still need to be answered. Like why the Afghan military needed to conduct a SWAT type raid on a neutral hospital to find a single terrorist who may not have actually been there. Or better yet, if they actually respected MSF’s mission as a neutral medical facility, and would the Afghan security forces be willing to let them continue their work in the area?
Saturday, shortly after 2:00 AM Afghanistan time, an airstrike of initially unknown origins began to rain down on the hospital. Due to various factors such as witness accounts and a statement made by an anonymous military official in Washington D.C., the attacks were probably conducted by an AC-130 gunship with U.S. forces at the helm, which had been on missions in the area to assist other U.S. and Afghan forces. Around 30 minutes into the bombardment, medical officials at the hospital frantically called the U.S. military command in the area to inform them they were attacking a hospital. The attack then continued for 30 additional minutes and seemed to consist of small diameter bomb attacks and large caliber cannon fire.
By the end of the bombardment, 12 MSF staff and 10 patients were dead, and the hospital was completely destroyed. Surviving staff from the intensive care unit in the hospital stated that people in the unit that could not get out died, burned to death in their beds while staff in the area died trying to save them. In the days since the abhorrent attack, the MSF there has had to completely shut down the hospital in Kunduz and they have moved all remaining patients to surrounding hospitals. Officials at MSF have also stated that they have no intention of accepting the U.S. military explanation or rhetoric, and they vow to get an independent investigation not conducted by the military or the Pentagon.
The U.S. Defense Department immediately denied any responsibility in the attack by relying on an old tactic. They claimed that an airstrike had been carried out in the area by an AC-130 gunship to support U.S. troops that were engaged with the Taliban nearby and that there may have been collateral damage as a result. Of course, the U.S. media is usually quick to accept that as an answer, but the constant pressure from the MSF leadership has made it hard for that narrative to maintain momentum. One has to consider that when U.S. forces carry out an attack in other scenarios that accidentally kill civilians, such as errant drone strikes in the Sudan, the “collateral damage” excuse works because the victims aren’t in a position to garner much attention. The MSF however, is a multi-national organization made of western doctors backed by rich western donors. They have weight in the media, and as expected, that gives this situation global attention. That could work to help expose the situation further. There are also a few facts about the AC-130 gunship that also makes this a particularly tough narrative to swallow.
Perhaps the officials at the U.S. state department along with the commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. John F. Campbell knew these facts too, because they adjusted their narrative a few hours after their original press release. This time, they claimed that they did indeed attack the hospital with purpose by the gunship, and the reasoning was due to Taliban activity and attacks coming from within the hospital that presented a danger to U.S. and Afghan troops outside. So, they attacked the hospital to rout the Taliban threat. The MSF has maintained that there were no active Taliban soldiers in the hospital participating in a military operation, nor were there any weapon stockpiles, and there has been no evidence produced to prove otherwise. The only people in the hospital were up to 200 medical staff and patients.
Instead, it implies that in a best-case scenario, a U.S. led warship was willing to take the lives of up to 200 innocent doctors, patients and civilians to kill a handful of Taliban soldiers or an arguably small amount of munitions. Not only does that constitute a war crime, but a case could also be made that the attack is an example of state sponsored terrorism.
The MSF leadership, including the executive director of MSF-USA Jason Cone, has continued to put pressure on the U.S. and Afghani officials for the truth and cracks are constantly poked through the various narratives. The third version of events that has been put out by the Gen. Campbell is that the U.S. troops in the area were not in direct fire or attack and that the request for aerial support came instead from the Afghani security forces who instead were allegedly under fire. Basically, the General was trying to say that the airstrike occurred because of an allies request, but the order was not passed through the U.S. chain of command. The implication then became that the U.S. military allowed itself to be used as a tool by Afghani forces to attack a target, which would also constitute a war crime, and that has created perhaps the most backlash among U.S. citizens. Perhaps most disturbing of all for this narrative is the possibility that the attack was requested purposely by Afghani security forces to eliminate a hospital that at any time could be treating members of the Taliban, despite their non-active status, and also that the attack might be retaliatory from the incident in July at the same hospital. This seems to be the opinion of a few of the survivors. While a vendetta against the hospital seems to be a stretch, it still doesn’t justify the possibility that the U.S. would be willing to carry out airstrikes at the request of Afghani forces even if the target is full of innocent civilians that are protected under the laws of the Geneva Convention.
The latest narrative change occurred on Wednesday morning when Gen. Campbell made the claim that the airstrike was indeed done at the request of the Afghan security forces, but the target was confirmed by U.S. special forces that were operating in the area. And while that explanation seems to be the closest to the truth, it still doesn’t explain why a U.S. AC-130 gunship was used to raze a hospital to the ground, an act in clear violation of international law. In fact, none of the explanations to date has even come close to justify this grievous war crime, especially during a time when U.S. forces are actually supposed to be phasing out of Afghanistan.
U.S. President Obama called the MSF International President Joanne Liu on Wednesday to express his apologies and also told her that steps would be taken to ensure that this would be less likely to happen in the future. He also surely promised Liu that full investigations would be carried out, not only by the U.S. investigators, but also Afghan forces and N.A.T.O. Since then, perhaps recognizing the lack of bias by the U.S. and Afghan investigators, MSF has requested that the investigation be carried out by an independent entity, specifically the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, but unfortunately neither of the countries involved sanction the work done by the organization, so they cannot operate in the area. As a result, it is unlikely that MSF or their supporters will be satisfied with the investigative findings, and it remains to be seen if they can maintain the media sway they have garnered thus far. No one from the MSF is backing down either, nor are they accepting the possibility that the mission of the MSF is changed either. In a statement made from Geneva, Liu stated, "If we let this go, as if it was a non-event, we are basically giving a blank check to any countries who are at war. If we don't safeguard that medical space for us to do our activities, then it is impossible to work in other contexts like Syria, South Sudan, like Yemen."
The U.S. and Afghani governmental or military services have not been able to prove the presence of Taliban combatants, or offer suitable reason as to why they would need to attack a civilian run hospital to kill a handful of terrorists. The act itself is consistent with the standards that constitute a war crime under international law, no matter what variation of the events you accept as the truth. Maybe on some level, trying to accept one narrative or another is a fruitless endeavor. Perhaps the pursuit of those answers just serves the need of the many to find the one to blame, as if the blame could be shouldered by one person in the first place. Even if they could offer a suitable reason, or find that person to blame, we have to ask ourselves a question as a society. Is it now acceptable to kill patients in a hospital to fight a taxpayer funded War on terror, or do we still have a chance to pull back, and find our humanity during these times of easy global conflict?