Doctors Without Borders rejected the Pentagon’s offer to rebuild their hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which United States military forces bombed on October 3. The aid group also indicated “condolence payments,” which the Pentagon is prepared to authorize, should not preempt or prevent an independent investigation into how U.S. military ever approved of a strike on the medical compound.
Twelve MSF staff and ten patients, including three children, were killed in a strike, which General John Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, claims went through a “rigorous” procedure before being approved by the chain of command.
Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders International, claimed staff heard a U.S. army plane circle multiple times before it released 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,” according to Liu.
In a statement on October 11, the group—also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres—shared, “MSF’s longstanding policy is to not accept funding from any governments for its work in Afghanistan and other conflicts around the world. This policy allows us to work independently without taking sides and provide medical care to anyone who needs it. This will not change.”
“MSF has not officially received any details of the compensation announced by the Pentagon for those killed and wounded in the U.S. airstrike on MSF’s hospital in Kunduz,” the group added. “It is important to note that under international humanitarian law, the offer of comepnsation at this stage cannot preempt the result of present and future investigations, nor preclude any further claims or rights of those affected by the U.S. airstrike.”
The group’s call for an independent investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission was reiterated.
On October 10, Defense Press Secretary Peter Cook suggested the Pentagon wanted to “address the consequences of the tragic incident at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan” through “condolence payments to civilian non-combatants injured and the families of civilian non-combatants killed as a result of U.S. military operations.”
“Under the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program (CERP), U.S. Forces-Afghanistan has the authority to make condolence payments and payments toward repair of the hospital. USFOR-A will work with those affected to determine appropriate payments. If necessary and appropriate, the administration will seek additional authority from the Congress,” Cook stated.
Liu delivered a speech on October 7, where she declared, “The facts and circumstances of this attack must be investigated independently and impartially, particularly given the inconsistencies in the U.S. and Afghan accounts of what happened over recent days. We cannot rely on only internal military investigations by the U.S., NATO and Afghan forces.”
The organization called for the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, which has not been used but has existed since 1991, to investigate violations of international humanitarian law that occurred in the U.S. air strike.
The body was established by the Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions. It has 76 signatory countries, and only one signatory country needs to sponsor an inquiry for an investigation to be launched. So, Doctors Without Borders urged governments to stop being “too polite or afraid to set a precedent” and step up to activate an investigation.
When asked if the Pentagon would object to an independent investigation, Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 6, “I have trust and confidence in the folks that will do the investigation for NATO, the folks that will do the investigation for DOD and the Afghan partners. And so, you know, all the very, tough questions that we’re all asking, they will get after that.”
In other words, the Pentagon’s position is an independent investigation is unnecessary because there is a U.S., NATO, and Afghan investigation. However, without an independent investigation, the only investigations will involve officials, who have varying interests in covering up what truly happened.
Liu has described how the strike in Kunduz was the “biggest loss of life” for Doctors Without Borders in an airstrike.”
“In Kunduz, our patients burned in their beds,” Liu recalled. “MSF doctors, nurses, and other staff were killed as they worked. Our colleagues had to operate on each other. One of our doctors died on an improvised operating table—an office desk —while his colleagues tried to save his life.”
The Washington Post published a story on the airstrike, which quoted an unnamed “individual familiar with the aircraft’s operations that night.” This person claimed the “sensor operators identified fighters moving into and firing from one of the hospital’s front porticos. The crew, piloting an aircraft that rarely targets buildings, asked the [Joint Operations Center] twice if they wanted the aircraft to engage, the individual said.”
“Even if Taliban militants were firing from the compound, U.S. rules of engagement would not have allowed an airstrike if the crew knew it was a protected civilian facility,” the Post pointed out.
Doctors Without Borders, however, has vehemently denied Taliban fighters or any other militants ever used the hospital for launching any attacks.
As journalist Anand Gopal recently noted, what the U.S. war in Afghanistan has done is rendered neutrality obsolete. Anything can be transformed into a target. All factions in the war, including the U.S., have targeted institutions, which are supposed to be protected, at one time or another.
This fierce assault on the idea that hospitals can be neutral, even if they treat wounded enemies of the U.S., is what Doctors Without Borders vehemently has challenged through its call for an independent investigation. It sees the strike on the hospital as an attack on the Geneva Conventions because patients, medical workers, and facilities are supposed to be protected from attacks.