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U.S. Commander Claims Forces ‘Would Never Intentionally Target Protected Medical Facility’

The United States commander of military forces in Afghanistan appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee and addressed the U.S. airstrike on the hospital in Kunduz. He claimed the Doctors Without Border hospital was “mistakenly struck,” and the U.S. “would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.”

General John F. Campbell, as he stated in a press briefing on October 5, said U.S. forces provided “close air support to Afghan forces at their request” in the morning on October 3. The decision to provide air fire was a “U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command.”

U.S. Special Operations forces on the ground were in “close vicinity” and communicated with the aircraft, which bombed the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital.

Twelve MSF staff and ten patients, including three children, have been reported killed. Thirty-seven were wounded, including 19 MSF staff.

While Afghan forces were responsible for the request for air support, Campbell told the committee the request still had to “go through a rigorous U.S. procedure to enable fires to go on the ground.”

Campbell noted a military investigation, a NATO investigation, and an Afghan investigation will be completed on the strike on the hospital. A preliminary assessment on the strike would be completed within the next 30 days.

Despite the claim the hospital was “mistakenly struck,” Campbell’s testimony indicates a process took place, where U.S. forces cleared a part of the hospital as a legitimate target because Taliban fighters believed to be in the hospital.

Campbell told the hawkish Republican Senator Tom Cotton when asked who was to blame, “The Taliban did go into Kunduz. The Taliban did know that they were going to cause a fight inside a built-up area.” He added the Taliban targets civilians, which he maintained was different from what happened at the hospital.

Yet, as Dr. Joanne Liu, the president of MSF International stated, the claims from the Afghanistan government that Taliban forces used the hospital to fire on coalition forces imply “Afghan and U.S. forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital, which amounts to an admission of a war crime.”

“On the night of the bombing,” according to Liu, “MSF staff working in the hospital heard what was later confirmed to be a U.S. army plane circle around multiple times, releasing its bombs on the same building within the hospital compound at each pass. The building targeted was the one housing the intensive care unit, emergency rooms, and physiotherapy ward. Surrounding buildings in the compound were left largely untouched.”

One Afghan Amin u-Allah was interviewed for BBC News and shared, “Doctors were about to take me to an operating theatre when the bomb hit. There were flames all around me. I saw patients and doctors burn to death.”

Afghan security forces raided this exact hospital in July. That is because Afghan security forces (and possibly U.S. forces) have been upset with MSF for treating all the wounded, including Taliban fighters.

Contrary to Campbell’s statement, there is clear documentation from journalist Dahr Jamail of attacks on medical facilities in Iraq in violation of the Geneva Conventions [PDF].

Reuters noted, “In 2009, a Swedish aid group accused U.S. forces of violating humanitarian principles by raiding a hospital in Wardak province, west of Kabul.” Plus, the U.S. is known to be supporting a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which has committed attacks on medical facilities.

Nevertheless, Campbell declared, “No military in history has done more to avoid harming innocents. We’ve readily assumed greater risk to our own forces in order to protect non-combatants.” And Campbell added, “Our records stand in stark contrast to the actions of the Taliban. They’ve repeatedly violated the laws of war by intentionally targeting civilians,” and cited a statistic from the United Nations on the Taliban being responsible for at least 70% of civilian deaths in Afghanistan.

How the Taliban deliberately targets and kills civilians was mentioned to demonstrate the difference between the U.S. and the Taliban. The implicit message is that civilian casualties from U.S. warfare are more justifiable than civilian casualties from the Taliban because the U.S. never intentionally targets civilians. But this does not reflect the full truth.

What happens is compounds with suspected militants are attacked, and everyone killed is typically presumed to have some association or affiliation with those militants. The U.S. can claim no civilians were deliberately targeted and killed because they classified them as associates of militants targeted. If dead civilians are uncovered and create outrage among the population, the U.S. claims their deaths were a mistake, because they believed they were targeting fighters. The standard is a deadly guilty until proven innocent standard, one which allows the U.S. to justify dead civilians.

In the past, the U.S. has bombed wedding parties. In 2013, it was reported the CIA had called an airstrike, which left 17 Afghan civilians dead, including twelve children. Afghan militias were reportedly behaving like they were “responsible to no one.”

Critically, a military investigation into the Bala Baluk massacre concluded an attack on May 4, 2009, which killed dozens of Afghan civilians, had been the result of “significant errors.” If “air crews and forces on the ground had followed strict rules devised to prevent civilian casualties,” American warplanes would have aborted “at least some of the strikes” against the half dozen targets hit over a period of seven hours.

Presuming strict rules were in place, why was the hospital in Kunduz targeted? Why was there no opportunity given to hospital staff and patients to evacuate if they were going to raze the compound? After all, MSF was in communication with U.S. forces about their exact GPS location.

Once again, all evidence points to a calculated decision to bomb a hospital. Any investigation, if it is going to be considered something more than a whitewash, must address the issue of how U.S. forces determined an attack on a hospital was entirely legitimate and justified.

Ben Bernanke participates in a discussion at the Ford School in 2003 (via Ford School on Flickr)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."